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When the Shakespeare Theatre mounted Love’s Labour’s Lost a few seasons back at the Lansburgh, it did so in what I now recall as a sort of Library-in-Wonderland setting, with stacks of oversized books cluttering corners and the king and his courtiers debating romantic fine points with the fervor you’d expect of mad hatters at a tea party. The approach was literary, with production emphasis placed firmly on the play’s language.

PJ Paparelli’s production for the Washington Shakespeare Company is equivalently dream-wrought on a somewhat smaller budget. The director’s program notes wax eloquent on love’s power—how a single shot from Cupid’s bow can seemingly stop time—and designer Ethan Sinnott has represented that notion physically by plunging one of the little cherub’s gigantic love darts—a 35-foot-tall, red-plumed arrow—into the face of a clock at midstage. Around it, the king and his buddies cavort like smitten Lilliputians. Literary they’re not, but for physicality and rambunctiousness, they’ll take on all comers.

Before the evening is 45 seconds old, one of them has run smack into the arrow, nearly knocking himself cold. A few moments later, education-minded King Ferdinand (Clinton D. Brandhagen) is slicing his hand open so he can sign the plot’s central all-work-no-play pledge in blood, in the sort of impetuous gesture that marks him as an overgrown schoolboy. And before long, he and his three best buds—proto-frat-boy Longaville (Andrew Smith), accident-prone Dumaine (Josh Barrett), and smartass Berowne (Andrew Laird)—are falling into wells, leaping into frays, shoving, climbing, or hurling any inanimate object they come across, and playing pranks on anything that moves.

What they’ve forsworn, on pain of more pain—and all four of them open veins, so you figure they’re serious—is wine, carousing, and coeds. Alas, the moment they’ve affirmed their oath, a gorgeous princess (Rue Giles) and a trio of ladies-in-waiting (Lisa Walsh, Jam Donaldson, and Sarah Wiggin) arrive on the castle doorstep.

Before you can say “silly plot device,” Ferdinand and his chums have fallen for them, head over heels (more or less literally, what with all the tumbling going on), and each has begun figuring out all sorts of subterfuges to woo them without letting on to the pact’s other co-signers. Romantic hi-jinks ensue. So do lo-jinks, because there are commoners around, including a fellow named Dull, who lives up to his moniker, a language-mangling Spaniard and his uproariously dyspeptic servant, and a rough-hewn couple whose romance is designed to please the groundlings who don’t go in for literary puns.

It’s worth noting that Shakespeare usually made do with just one or two couples in his comedies—three at most—and you might say he overshot a bit in supplying Love’s Labour’s Lost with four pairs of high-born romantics and a low-comedy servant romance just for spice. Some of those lovers are bound to feel a bit sketchy, especially when everyone in a production is doing pratfalls. In Kenneth Branagh’s ambitious, albeit uneven, film version, which substituted ’30s and ’40s pop tunes for much of the Bard’s wordplay, three of the four central couples were reduced to backup status, supporting the remaining couple with high kicks and Andrews Sisters harmonies.

So it’s pleasant to report that at the Clark Street Playhouse, director Paparelli and his youthful cast—it’s the first professional production I’ve seen where the slacker academics all look young enough to remember what it’s like to skip class—have found ways of differentiating at least some of the folks who splash, bash, and flash each other with such abandon.

Rob Thain, sporting a goofy accent and an expression to match, is perhaps the most distinctive, and not just because he’s new to Washington audiences. He’s having a high old time as Don Armado, the Spaniard whose notions of courtly behavior are forever being mocked by the higher-born folks he’s trying to impress. And it’s hard to imagine a more dismissively hilarious sidekick for him than Richard Kirkwood, who has mastered the art of the sarcastic, under-one’s-breath put-down well enough that you can’t help but wish that the Bard had given him even more to sneer at.

Also fine is Laird’s Berowne, the most articulate of the evening’s lovers—and the one who seems most at home speaking verse. Paparelli has him climb the shaft of Cupid’s arrow and perch high in its tailfeathers when he needs to overhear the others betraying their oaths, and it says something that, for all the carousing going on at stage level, your eye never leaves him.

The other men have their moments, as does Giles’ regally beautiful yet down-to-earth princess, who wraps Brandhagen’s appealingly earnest King Ferdinand around her finger with understandable ease. I kept waiting for her ladies-in-waiting to do more than pose prettily in the color-coded gowns in which T. Tyler Stumpf has outfitted them, but perhaps it’s asking too much that everyone register strongly in a plot so overpopulated with lovers.

The evening’s technical effects are all handled capably, from Lynn Joslin’s unobtrusive illumination to the attractive score provided by Joel Derfner and integrated into the evening by Brian MacKean. And when the Bard shifts gears in the final moments to bring the evening’s carousing into sync with the real world outside the theater, the production manages to shift with him. A casting fillip allows the play’s last scene, which is somber and realistic, to emerge quite naturally from all the carousing that’s gone before. Paparelli has cast a graying Jim Di Lauro as the messenger who brings the princess news of her father’s death, and his arrival has the same effect on the youthfully love-crazed romantics that a grown-up’s arrival would have on a rec room full of hard-partying teenagers: They all sober up, and as they do, the real world reasserts itself.

Smart, that…observant, realistic, and effortless. CP