ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare; directed by Michael Tolaydo; scenery by John Hodges; costumes by Bary Allen Odom; lighting by Hugh Lester; with Leonardo Cimino, David Chandler, Paul Norwood, Ralph Cosham, Robert L. Burns, Patrick Clear, Earle Edgarton, Marion Lines, Margaret Whitton, Kenneth Meseroll, Glynis Bell and David Cromwell.

At the Folger Theatre through Aug. 2.

The usual question you take to a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" is whether you can believe in, or care about, the lovers around whom the play resolves. Will Romeo be the capricious, headstrong boy Shakespeare described, or a pretty wimp with a singsongy voice? Will Juliet be a spunky, quick-tongued girl or a nonstop moaner and groaner? Will they have the freshness of teen-agers or the thunderously tiresome voices and demeanors of "trained Shakespearean actors?"

Michael Tolaydo's staging of the play, which opened last night at the Folger Theatre, offers reassuring answers to these questions, and much more. In this splendid production, the lovers come across as a convincing and appealing couple, but that doesn't stop Romeo from being a bit of a fool, or Juliet from being coy and frivolous at times; they are real people, recognizable kin of their rather ordinary families, who happen to be infatuated with each other.

As a result, this is a much funnier "Romeo and Juliet" than most. Margaret Whitton makes an excellent case (by example) for an unconventionally playful reading of several of Juliet's major speeches -- including the entire "Wherefore art thou Romeo? . . . What's in a name?" passage and "Parting is such sweet sorrow . . . " As you listen to her, it suddenly seems inescapable that a woman who speaks this wittily must be very conscious of her own wit.

But Whitton blends her light and lovestruck moods so smoothly that her balcony rendezvous with Romeo, far from becoming less of a love scene, becomes more of one. In fact, the contrast between Whitton's deft, shrewd performance and Robert L. Burns' flightly, dead-earnest portrayal of Romeo -- who is, after all, a bit insipid at times, even in the script -- adds an element of attraction-between-opposites to their chemistry.

The Folger's Shakespeare productions have often suffered from a sharp fall-off in the quality of the secondary performances (particularly the comic ones). This "Romeo and Juliet," in a startling break from that pattern, saves some of its most vivid and delicate acting for the smaller roles and imparts a new sense of the breadth and richness of the play. Lord and Lady Capulet, for example, are marvelously acted by Earle Edgarton and Marion Lines, and the scene in which they inform Juliet of her imminent marriage to Paris is turned into something unexpectedly gripping and substantial. Juliet's open rebellion becomes all the more startling, incidentally, because her father cradles her in his arms and talks baby-talk to her before he suspects the bent of her mind.

David Chandler makes an engaging, streetwise Mercutio, and, together with Patrick Clear as Benvolio and Kenneth Meseroll as Tybalt, gives us a proper Shakespearean perspective on Verona's noble, marauding youth. They are violence-prone fellows, but not punks or delinquents as in some anachronistically modern interpretations -- the distinction being that 16th-century Italians (at least as viewed by 16th-century Englishmen) were a casually violent people across the board.

As Paris, Paul Norwood is a worthy suitor for Juliet's hand -- if a little too willing to proceed by the book. He seems so worthy, in fact, that you can't help wondering if she has really made the right choice. But a certain arbitrariness about the tie between her and Romeo only enhances the impression that theirs is an everyday love affair. The feud between their families, the extraordinary lengths they must go to in order to marry, and, of course, their tragic end -- these are the special features of their predicament, not the intensity or nobility of their love itself.