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At the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theater to June 8

More finely tuned Shakespeare I’ve probably seen. But funnier? More energetic? More direct and earnest? Never.

Wordplay, swordplay, and horseplay, syntactic wit, poetic rhythm, and dramatic heft: These are the elementals in Shakespeare’s work. All else is merely window-dressing, and Shenandoah Shakespeare Express knows this, which is why the kinetic Virginia-based touring troupe rejects most of what other companies invest big bucks in: costume frippery, complex lighting, elaborate sets.

Instead it performs in what’s essentially modern dress—simple black trousers and tops accented with vividly colored swatches denoting political loyalty or rank in Henry IV, Part I and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, collegiate combinations of blue, white, and khaki for the cerebral comedy of Love’s Labors Lost—and keeps the lights full up on the stage and in the house alike so cast members can see patrons’ reactions and fine-tune their performances. Sets are bare-bones: A half-dozen black-and-white boxes get stacked and re-stacked to build thrones, tables, even Titania’s woodland bower. Props are the simplest: rapiers, broadswords, flasks, and various letters. It’s clean, uncluttered stagecraft that minimizes barriers between actors and audience and lets the action move at a clip we’re not accustomed to in the classics.

In Henry, for instance, Prince Hal has barely stopped trading banter with Falstaff at Mistress Quickly’s tavern, before the king, in conference with balky lords at Windsor, is bridling at Harry “Hotspur” Percy’s insistence on ransom for his captive brother-in-law. The king exits, the nobles plot sedition, and bang, we’re back with Falstaff, robbing travelers on the road outside Eastcheap. Low comedy jostles elbows with high drama, crass visual jokes follow on the heels of verbose flights of outraged rebel rhetoric, and there’s barely room to draw breath between them—much less time to think about yawning.

The snap of pointedly opened parasols punctuates similarly swift transitions from court to camp in a Love’s Labors that imagines the King of Navarre and his three noble friends as frat boys who ill understand the import of their vow to forswear women and other worldly things for three years of intense scholarship—a promise made forgetfully on the eve of a prearranged diplomatic visit from the princess of France. Naturally, the king and his cohorts fall immediately for the quick-witted princess and her tart-tongued ladies-in-waiting, and many contortions ensue as they try to woo their women without tripping over their oaths. In this, the wordiest play in Shakespeare’s folio, the Shenandoans navigate thickets of Jesuitical argument and cuttingly clever repartee with surprising aplomb—within minutes of singing a slightly bawdy (and intentionally ironic) ditty about being tongue-tied with amor.

Music, in fact, is measure for measure a major element in the company’s modernist takes on these Elizabethan classics, and if the choices are sometimes strenuously quirky, they never stretch context too far. Navarre and his men enter tossing a rugby ball and chanting the cheerfully inane “that’s all I want to say to you” chorus of the Police’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” then segue into an erudite debate framed in elegantly constructed couplets. And any director could incorporate Mozart—or the Macarena, for that matter—into Midsummer, but it takes a kind of demented inspiration to have Bottom, the hammy leader of the mechanicals who spends the night wearing ass’s ears and cavorting with the fairy queen Titania, do the Macarena to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” probably Mozart’s most clichéd work.

That said, Midsummer is the one play in the company’s current repertory in which SSE’s signature style doesn’t seem to kindle much real magic (though one other giggle-provoking bit has an Athenian court functionary wearing dark glasses and talking into his cuffs like Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire). It’s played fast and broad, and the laughs come so thick and heavy there’s no room for the wonder this fantastical story of elemental beings and mythic heroes can conjure.

Still, fast and broad gives the cast more chances to clown with kids in the audience. Jerry Richardson (Falstaff’s dullard companion Gadshill, among others, in Henry) inspires shrieks of laughter playing the kind of Bottom you might see if, say, the denizens of Sesame Street staged Shakespeare: a putty-faced, loose-limbed lummox, wide-eyed and charming, but with little of the fool’s dignity that the character really ought to have. (Pleasant surprise, then, that he’s so assured as the well-spoken, slightly cynical Berowne in Love’s Labors.)

Carl Martin, the shade-wearing Secret Service type, might ad-lib suspicion with a little girl who’d stashed a rag doll under her chair in the front row, but otherwise he hasn’t much to do; he’s uproariously funny in Henry, though, as a wild-haired, Twinkie-munching Falstaff who, rolling out of bed the morning after a long night of drinking, briefly sports what might delicately be called “contractor cleavage.”

The most consistently confident performances come from Jacob Zahniser—sexily self-assured as Henry’s Prince Hal, alternately lovestruck and snarky as Midsummer’s Lysander, and agreeably moronic as Love’s Labors’ Costard—and Emily Rainbow Davis, as the preposterous windbag schoolmaster Holofernes in Labors, the earnestly clueless impresario Peter Quince in Midsummer, and three small parts, including the jokester Poins, in Henry. That’s not to say that others don’t shine here and there: Scot McKenzie’s Hotspur is a brashly charismatic foil for Zahniser’s Hal, and he goes gleefully over the top as Love’s Labors’ ludicrously hormonal Armado; Kate Norris makes a cool, competent French princess in the latter play.

It’s not the most polished Shakespeare ever put on stage. But then, this year’s 12-member Shenandoan ensemble—and its creative parents, who run the company from year to year—isn’t necessarily after polish. It’s about guerrilla Shakespeare, about gutsy performances, wild ideas, and getting back to the basics that make these plays work now, 400 years after they were first performed. And make no mistake, these kids are damn good at it.CP