The giddiness of Shakespeare’s early comedy “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is hard to get right. The wordplay is relentless as a quartet of scholarly men try (and fail) to avoid romance, and slapstick acting sometimes just gets in the way.
Vivienne Benesch’s jolly staging at the Folger Theatre comes mostly as a relief, then: It’s friendly and frisky, but it doesn’t paw at you with all those puns and academic comebacks. It’s wordy, for sure, which may be why productions often try a musical push through or around the verbiage (see Kenneth Branagh’s peculiar 2000 film adaptation with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs).
There’s a little music in this version, too, but it’s forgettable. Instead, the actors speak with an appealing conversational flair, and the show coasts on the jubilant streak of the scholars, led by Joshua David Robinson’s sincere King of Navarre and comically amped by Zachary Fine as the bachelor Berowne.
If the fellows are prone to falling over each other in their scramble to hold to their austere code, the four women arriving on a diplomatic matter from France are comparative grown-ups. That makes sense, for it’s the women’s prank that finally aligns things. Amelia Pedlow is composed, and just slightly winking at the shenanigans that unfold, as the Princess of France. And it takes only one cool gaze and a snappily spoken put-down for Kelsey Rainwater’s Rosaline to be spotted as Berowne’s opposite number.
It’s a natty-looking production, with fashionable costumes by Tracy Christensen. The time is 1932, the year the Folger opened, and designer Lee Savage’s set is a knockoff of the library’s Paster Reading Room. That’s a nice in-joke as the Folger plans a major expansion and renovation, and Benesch has the cast so fully inhabit the theater that they charge down the center aisle and hide behind columns upholding the balcony. (One actor, in the play-within-the play that nearly wraps things up, even has a mishap with the stage equipment.)
The show so gets the erudite spirit of the play that even the tweedy scholar Holofernes, who has three words more than he needs for everything, is animated by Louis Butelli’s fizzy performance. Tonya Beckman effectively doubles as the low comic Jaquenetta and as the crisp administrative Boyet, attendant to the French princess; overripe elements that might be pulled back (or that just don’t go anywhere) are Eric Hissom’s melancholy Don Armado and the loopy business of the four scholars in disguise as dancing Muscovites.
Overripeness is partly the point, and you bide your time through some of it. The play exists in a state of excessive merriment until its final serious turn, which is when this production really catches your attention. “Russet yeas, and honest kersey noes” — i.e., simplicity — become the new order as the men and women look each other in the eyes and make honest deals. Shakespeare’s difficult comedy may not really have a knockout punch, but this cast’s sober shift is a pleasing finish to a mostly winsome show.
Love’s Labor’s Lost, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Vivienne Benesch. Lights, Colin K. Bills; original music and sound design, Lindsay Jones. With Josh Adams, Matt Dallal, Megan Graves, Yesenia Iglesias, Edmund Lewis, Susan Rome, Jack Schmitt and Chani Wereley. About 2½ hours. $42-$85. Through June 9 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu.