Three things in theater can make even a jaded critic’s hair stand on end: Sondheim passionately sung, Shakespeare passionately spoken, and Shaw passionately played. There’s none of the first and not much of the second in D.C. just now, but up on 14th Street in the Source Theatre space, the Washington Stage Guild has mounted a Major Barbara that delivers more than a little of the last.

Which isn’t enormously surprising, come to think of it, from a company that mastered Man & Superman a couple of seasons back—though that sort of logic might lead to the assumption that the ever-inventive Shenandoah Shakespeare Express should be able to toss off a relative trifle like A Midsummer Night’s Dream without thinking twice.

Suffice it to say someone should’ve thought twice.

Maybe we’re spoiled, what with the Shakespeare Theatre and the Washington Shakespeare Company, the odd imported Brit-pack and the occasional smutty spoof; there’s a rich Shakespeare tradition in this town, and most of the verse spoken here gets tossed off with some style. Even the Express, in seasons past, has been a pretty reliable source of Bard-inage: Kate Norris, one of the area’s finest young players, made her first appearances here as one of the company’s cross-dressing, role-doubling risk-takers.

But the latest of the company’s stripped-down two-hour outings is a slapdash, slapsticky affair, a Dream that might have been put together by a sleep-deprived director too punchy to know what’s funny—or where the script’s real riches are hidden. Lacking a coherent idea for his production, Murray Ross has served up a conceit instead, and he owes his actors and his audience alike an apology at least as broad as the brand of teen humor he tars the play with.

The clumsy, combat-booted fairies are just part of it, though their strenuously whimsical pirouetting certainly ranks among the evening’s more tiring elements. The trouble starts at the top of Act 1, in fact, with a leather-clad Theseus and a jodhpured Hippolyta (David Loar and Alexandra Cremer) so stiff they might be statuary. They’re no better as Oberon and Titania, the feuding fairy royals, and the quarreling Athenian lovers caught in the magical crossfire are a shrill, sophomoric foursome—indistinguishable hormone-driven caricatures who shed varsity jackets and drop trou at the drop of a hat, despite a total dearth of sexual chemistry. James Ricks’ troublemaking Puck is a surly swagger through a single dimension.

Only the mechanicals—the well-meaning blue-collar dimwits who stage the play within the play—manage the right mix of humor and heart. Not all of them, and not consistently: James Hurdle’s Flute/Thisbe has a curious kind of grace, even if Ross milks the man-in-a-dress gag once or twice too often. And Aaron Lyons’ Bottom is somehow less agreeable with ass ears than with his own—which must take effort, though he does conjure that critical tone of wonder in the character’s “rare dream” speech.

It’s then, in fact, that the full weight of the production’s failure strikes you: Plenty of the business on the Folger stage is funny, as far as cheap laughs go, and some of it (there’s a bit with an air horn) is a downright gas. But nobody seems to be paying more than dutiful attention to the play’s impossibly colorful language; it rattles off their tongues like rote Latin from the lips of choirboys, a rich syntax spoken rhythmically enough but somehow sapped of color and meaning. There’s tremendous power in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if you know which lines to look between, but Ross has cluttered this production up so thoroughly that no one can see further than the next sight gag. Lord, what fools indeed.

Lucky us, then, that the cast of Major Barbara seems to know what it’s talking about. Tricia McCauley, Brian McMonagle, and Morgan Duncan are the bright lights in a mostly sparkling ensemble that tears into Shaw’s arguments like giddy children into a pile of intricately wrapped gifts.

Brisk, bright-eyed McCauley is Barbara Undershaft, the titular major (in the Salvation Army) and nonconformist member of a clan that derives its position from her thoroughly aristocratic mother and its money from her father’s thoroughly embarrassing armaments empire. They’re like the Krupps, in a way, only with a sense of propriety.

Duncan, sleek and self-assured, is Barbara’s unreconstructed capitalist father, a nakedly avaricious operator looking for an heir to manage the business. McMonagle, alternately diffident and droll, rounds out the central trio as Barbara’s fiancé, Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins, a sardonic Greek scholar and “collector of religions” no more naturally drawn to the Salvationist’s mission than to the industrialist’s manufactory.

Shaw’s perverse device is a plot that forces poor Dolly to choose between the two, that measures the Army’s spiritual endeavors against the arms merchant’s temporal ones—and just guess which comes out ahead when it’s the cantankerous old genius’s yardstick. The joy of Major Barbara is in the endlessly twisty elegance of its reasoning and in the contrary romanticism of its conclusions; the Undershafts and their various hangers-on don’t just talk in circles—they talk in spirals, and just watching a cast negotiate the script’s high-wire challenges can be exhilarating.

Watching a cast in which even a few actors have managed to internalize the concepts behind the conversation is damn near a religious experience—and sometimes it seems as though the Shaw veterans at the Stage Guild do their best work only when the hurdles are as high as they are here. McMonagle and McCauley, who struck only faint sparks when they squared off in the company’s mildly entertaining Ill Met by Moonlight a few months back, are delightful here, clearly in love with their characters and believably charmed by each other.

Less consistently successful are Lynn Steinmetz, whose ideas of Mama Undershaft’s aristocratic bearing sometimes tend toward the stiff-backed, and Steven Carpenter, who’s a grating presence as Barbara’s pompous brother (but a surprisingly engaging one as a not-quite-repentant leech in the Act 2 sequence that has half the cast doubling roles down at Barbara’s mission). Duncan, for his part, can be a commanding presence and a surprisingly gentle one, but he doesn’t seem to have much of an in-between gear; some of his angrier moments come pretty rapidly out of nowhere, even if they do land like so many 16-inch shells.

Nearly all of them, though, seem to grasp what it is they’re getting angry—or silly, or sad or giddy or grim—about. And god, when it’s Shaw scripting the mood swings, what fun that is to watch. CP