"Play Around Shakespeare" is the March offering at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre. Directed at a fifth-grade through junior-high audience that's probably grown up to "Laverne and Shirley," the play's just the thing to introduce "Romeo and Juliet" and other works by William Shakespeare. By incorporating accessible characters--King Henry, Bottom, Othello, Falstaff, Rhiannon--into a flow of scenes connected by debate over the playwright's techniques, the Playaround Shakespeare Company manages to distill those murky waters that separate so many young people from the vibrant wordplay and dramatic convolutions of the Bard.

The five-member company plays to its audience's predilictions--and then helps surmount them. There's violence (the sword fight and death of Mercutio from "Romeo and Juliet" and the murder of Cinna the Poet from "Julius Caesar"), cutting commentary (between Falstaff and Henry from "Henry IV, Part 1") and soap-opera paranoia and anger (the handkerchief scene between Othello and Desdemona from "Othello"). The Pyramus and Thisbe scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" course through the show, providing not only burlesque humor but a frame for the actors to work out of and return to with ease. Shakespeare's original scenes are connected by David Cronwell and Mike Howell's script, which suggests, in thoroughly understandable terms, the author's underlying themes: familial pride, mistaken identity, the abuse of passion. Dramatic structures are also examined--the suspension of disbelief, the wicked uses of irony, violence as release.

If all that sounds like a weight, it's not. Shakespeare's humor is always apparent while the action, supported by minimal props and costumes, is broadly played, particularly by Dion Anderson, Howell and Robert Brock. Flitting in and out of many characters, they suggest the possibilities of serious acting and the rewards of a witty, intelligent manuscript. The company's collective enthusiasm should generate further interest on the part of any audience exposed to "Play Around Shakespeare," which will be performed through March 24. Shows are Wednesday through Friday at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. For ticket information, call 357-1500.