LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST -- At the Folger through May 24.

Traditionally considered a theatrical lost cause, "Love's Labour's Lost" has been salvaged by the Folger Theater Group.

"As You Like It" it is not, but the Folger has a mandate to do more than just present Shakespeare's hits. Bad Shakespeare still compares favorably with good anyone else. This production is entertaining enough to make a work that is usually enjoyed only by the author's scholars available to his more casual fans.

There are two chief explanations of the comedy's weakness: That since it was probably Shakespeare's first play, he may not yet have gotten the hang of things; and that it was written for an in-group at court, making fun of the out-group, and therefore was never hilarious -- or even entirely intelligible -- to commercial theatergoers.

So while the typical Shakespearean theater problem is to manage a production that lives up to the greatness of the text, the one here is to sustain interest enough to exhibit the true pleasures of the text.

Folger's, directed by Louis W. Scheeder, has employed every known bit of low comedy in this effort. The characters who are not picking their teeth are talking with their mouths full. Anybody who isn't leering is belching. Those who are not pointing to the front of their pants and passing gas. Funny accents alternate with rude noises. The fine ladies are as lewd as possible, and the scholarly gentlemen as dopey. t

Note that all of this is well within the classic Shakespearean tradition, and what's more, it's funny. Not sublte, but funny. When Glynis Bell, as the country wench Jacquenetta, simultaneously chews on a carrot, looks cross-eyed at the tell-tale hay caught in her bosom, confirms an assignation with the local lout, strings along the noble dandy and gooses his twit of a page -- that is Shakespearean comdedy.

Much of the dialogue will, however, be puzzling to anyone who has not prepared by reading lots of tiny footnotes, and the parodies suffer from our not knowing whom or what they are parodying. (As a matter of fact, even when we do pretty much know -- "Don Ardiano de Armado, a fantastical Spaniard," must be connected with the then-recent defeat of the Spanish Armada -- they're not so hot.)

And here is where the spirited comic enthusiasm of the Folger cast is such a help. Don Ardiano and the schoolmaster Holofernes -- whose puns are pendantry are half in Latin -- survive what inspired them because Albert Corbin and Earle Edgerton can make them live.

The uppercrust characters -- Michael Tolaydo, Ralph Cosham, David Cromwell and Jim Beard as the gentlemen and Marion Lines, Ellen Newman, Katharine Manning and Lorraine Pollack as the ladies -- are also apt at mugging and doubletakes. But in addition to smoothing the lumps of the plot, they are able to smooth the bumps in character, so than an abrupt mood change, from slapstick to solemn, is touching instead of jarring.

Is it worth the effort?Yes.

There are compensating qualities that make it worth seeing this play about four young men who take an oath of scholarly chastity they can't keep for five minutes: These include some witty lines, a few quotable ones, and two elaborate pageants -- when the gentlemen masquerade as Russians, and when the townspeople impersonate the great figures of history -- that approach the humor of the best comedies. There is also a historically important point made about drawing on plain life, rather than affected literary tradition, that foreshadows what Shakespeare was to do for the theater. It is worth encouraging the early efforts of such an author.