As Nick Pavelich tells it, in the deadpan cadence of a stand-up comedian, the conversation with Sam Williamson on the subject of staging a two-man version of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" went fairly quickly.

"We'd worked together on 'Macbeth,' " Pavelich said, "and I sent him a text. I said 'How about two-man Shakespeare'? Sam said, 'Yeah, what show?' And I said, 'Well, probably "Romeo and Juliet," huh?' And he said, 'Yeah, that's right.' "

"It's the only acceptable answer," Williamson said.

The inspiration for their production is as simple as that: a serious tribute to Shakespeare's language, sans sets, costumes or any adornments.

It's not motivated by any political statements about gender. Nor is it a throwback to Shakespeare's time, when all the roles were played by men.

"It was just about the two of us wanting to work together. We've worked together so much, we love working together, we love Shakespeare, this is the way we saw it fit to do this. Just the two of us," Williamson said.

The two are both theater graduates of the University of Montana.

Williamson has appeared in the Montana Repertory Theatre's national tour of "Biloxi Blues," and the UM productions of "Angels in America: Part One," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He also directed "Macbeth," a downtown Rep production of "Circle Mirror Transformation" and an independent science-fiction play, "Holocene."

Pavelich's resume includes three productions with Williamson: "Macbeth" and "Holocene," and "Assassins" in Helena at the Myrna Loy Center.

While they were in the capital, they began editing Shakespeare's script to a manageable length.

They needed an edit that focused on the story and brought the show to a close in just under two hours. They cut some of the quibbling humor, and some of the extraneous roles.

That leaves about 11 characters each, with Pavelich as Romeo and Williamson as Juliet.

"When I'm Juliet on stage, he's basically any other character," Williamson said. "When he's Romeo, I'm any other character."

And so Williamson plays all of Romeo's friends, and Pavelich plays Juliet's family members, pretty much exclusively. There are some characters – Friar Laurence, the nurse – who are played by both actors at different points in the play.

The aspect that's more daunting than the memorization, they found, was developing all those characters and their arcs.

To help the audience follow along, they're aiming for big, bold portrayals.

"The characters have to be gigantic in every way," Williamson said. "So you can see a character and know, 'Oh, that's the nurse. Oh, that's Juliet. Oh, that's Mercutio. Oh, that's Lady Capulet. ' "

The two have been rehearsing every day for weeks, with yet another week ahead of them before the start of their five-day run.

They say the physical and emotional toll of the run-throughs is heavy.

"We're exhausted every single night after rehearsal," Pavelich said. "You'd think we would get used to it."

"Or start to," Williamson added. "But not really."

They've devised a few creative workarounds for the character changes, but don't want to reveal them. They'll be explained before the show each night.

More than a year after hatching the idea, the two haven't heard of any two-man productions of Shakespeare.

They've heard of one-man "Macbeth," but no two-man "Romeo and Juliet."

(To be fair, their stage manager Heidi Mudd has been working to help their self-financed production get off the ground.)

Neither actor is sure what the audience's reaction will be.

"Which is actually kind of a blessing," Williamson said. "From the beginning it's been kind of an experiment to see, 'Could this even happen? Is this something that should be done? Can we specifically do it? What will this town think?' "

If the two are trying to make any statement, it's about the independent nature of the production.

"No one should wait for permission to create," Williamson said. They hope it inspires people to take risks and "allow themselves the possibility of failure."

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