It ain’t Pericles, or even Cymbeline, but the true-love-never-did-run-smooth story that unspools fitfully in The Two Gentlemen of Verona ranks high enough on the list of troublesome Shakespeare: The plot turns on not one but two improbable insta-passions, and the resolution, to modern eyes and ears, is one of those overtidy Elizabethan things involving a ducal pardon, a breach-mending between former friends who’ve just been trying to kill each other, and the forgiveness of an impossibly good-hearted woman. So credit Aaron Posner—and a game cast of lovers, fools, and maskers—with something of an accomplishment for having made an engaging evening of it.

A mostly comprehensible one, too. Granted, the Folger Theatre’s swift, snappy staging gets its charge from the superb clowning of Kate Eastwood Norris, Holly Twyford, and Lucy Newman-Williams—in roles, let’s note, that are usually thought of as subsidiary. But much of its charm is rooted in an unlikely sense of realism: Love makes us do crazy things, Posner wants us to remember, and his cast honestly seems to believe enough in the disruptive influence of genuine passion that the plot almost makes sense.

A quick review: The love-skeptic Valentine has fallen hard for Silvia, a duke’s daughter he’s met on vacation in Milan; back home in Verona, Valentine’s romance-prone friend Proteus is busy finding ever more florid phrases in which to sing the praises of the fair Julia. The pledges of eternal fidelity, though, last only until Proteus (the joke’s in his name) visits Valentine in Milan and gets a look at Silvia—whereupon Proteus turns sneak and engineers Valentine’s banishment so he can have a better shot at the girl. Meanwhile, Julia, disguised as a boy, arrives to discover his treachery but helps him woo the unresponsive Silvia anyway—huh?—and the disconsolate Valentine hoofs it into the woods to live with a bunch of crazy-ass outlaws. Naturally, all ends well.

Impossibly enough, the lead four come off as a warm and likable lot, with Ian Merrill Peakes’ Proteus, crucially, the most believably flawed individual among them. Peakes, so anguished and human in last season’s Melissa Arctic, makes the evening’s best argument for Posner’s approach—he’s convincingly conflicted, but equally plausible in his irrational pursuit of the prize he’s so obsessed with. Karen Peakes, his real-life wife, makes Proteus’ spurned beloved a pert and slightly giddy creature, at least until she discovers her fickle swain’s treachery. (When she does, something plaintive—and something steely, too—starts to show in her eyes.)

Brian Hamman’s Valentine is a slightly less likely characterization—he’s charming enough when he’s up, but his anger and his despair both seem a little more acted than earned. Heidi Armbruster, happily, creates a Silvia who’s every inch the siren described in Valentine’s speeches, and more—she’s ravishingly feminine, with a sensible streak and a sturdy sense of her own worth that pays off beautifully in the second act.

Meanwhile, the surrounding players—you’d say “supporting,” except that here they’re practically the headline attraction—throw themselves gamely into the kind of broad physical comedy that’s absolutely deadly if it doesn’t come off. It comes off splendidly here: Two Gents’ two clowns can be annoying intrusions, but this evening’s best moments usually involve Twyford’s hypercaffeinated Speed, Norris’ high-watered Launce, or one of the sundry other characters the two inhabit (from the bandits to the upper-crust buffoon Thurio to a particularly woeful beagle). Half the time they’re masked, playing characters forbidding or foolish from behind the gorgeously baroque faces Aaron Cromie has crafted for them—odd things, immobile by definition but immensely expressive, not least because they leave room for the actors to do their work with a set of the jaw here, a shift of the eyes there.

Newman-Williams makes nearly as vivid an impression, playing both the saucy smarty-pants servant Lauretta and the august Duke of Milan (the latter from behind one of those fascinatingly communicative masks). And all three women have a hilarious time with the highwaymen: The script calls for six baddies, so Posner and Cromie create two-faced masks behind which Twyford, Norris, and Newman-Williams each develop a pair of distinct physical characterizations. It shouldn’t work—but even the scene in which Twyford’s two bandits have to beat each other up comes off crisply and comically.

Things break down a little, as they usually do, when the play delivers Silvia neatly back to a hastily rehabilitated Valentine and arm-twists Proteus into a recognition of his treachery and of a (surprise!) undisguised Julia’s worth, all in one hurried final scene. But for what it’s worth, the Peakeses come surprisingly close to making that reconciliation a believable one—he’s tentative, and she’s angry enough to smack him around a couple of times between kisses. Love makes us do crazy things, remember, and the point seems to be that this Julia’s no more able to smother her feelings for Proteus than he was able to resist his errant passion for Silvia.

That’s perhaps not the most sophisticated reading of a play that, approached differently, can have a distinct whiff of social criticism about it. Remember that historical context can help make sense of all the plot foolery: Elizabethan lovers were heir to the medieval tradition of courtly love, in which ornate proclamations of passion were more literary gestures than genuine expressions of feeling. And the really profound relationships were those between friends; men could understand their buddies, women their gossips, but nobody expected serious bonds to be formed across the gender gap, least of all between husband and wife. Underscore those realities and Two Gents becomes a skeptic’s look at a society that treats its women pretty shabbily: Proteus’ betrayal of Valentine becomes more important than his betrayal of Julia, lending weight and a certain darkness to Valentine’s rage. Silvia’s defense of her wronged sister emerges as an even more principled and powerful stand than it already is. Most interestingly, Julia’s embrace of the contrite Proteus seems an act not of forgiveness, but of capitulation: In the eyes of her society, this woman has shamed herself by leaving home without a chaperon to chase a man she’s not married to. If she spurns him when he returns repentant, she’s got nowhere to go.

But if that sort of approach makes for a more layered story, it also serves up a chilly kind of comedy—and there’s something wonderfully warm about the way Posner & Co. pour the play full of honest, heartfelt feeling. Even that throwaway comic scene about the dim-bulb Launce and his badly behaved dog seems sweet and sunny here—and if the season’s offered a stage picture more stupid-grin charming than the sloppy canine kiss Twyford’s pooch serves up at the end of it, I must’ve missed it. Revelatory? No—but more than real and rewarding enough.CP