Love is a notoriously chancy proposition, an invitation to folly, rife with the potential for heartbreak. Better, surely, to seek sanctuary within the seeming certainties of scholarship.
So the King of Navarre and three of his noblemen initially choose learning over love in Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost,'' now on Boston Common in an antic Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production directed by Steven Maler. They vow to forswear the company of women for three years, follow an ascetic lifestyle, and concentrate exclusively on study — all of which will, the king suggests, "make us heirs of all eternity.''
Soon, though, the appeal of the earthly here-and-now is made manifest by the arrival at court of the Princess of France and three of her noblewomen. By the end, the blithely confident assumptions of King & Co., all they thought they knew, have been thoroughly upended. Love has a way of doing that.
Words pour out in such dazzling profusion throughout "Love's Labour's Lost,'' an early comedy, that Shakespeare's untrammeled joy in language is abundantly evident. His skill at storytelling, less so. The plot of "Love's Labour's Lost'' is skimpy and repetitive, offering a limited sense of forward motion. Several scenes register primarily as set pieces, a chance for Shakespeare to luxuriate in his own astounding but still-developing powers.
Director Maler tackles this challenge by augmenting the wordplay with horseplay. His strong cast is equal to both sides of that task, especially those two old pros, Remo Airaldi and Fred Sullivan Jr. Attired in a black academic gown and a mortarboard to portray a pompous schoolmaster named Holofernes, Sullivan drops to the stage at one point and imitates the spinning, circular "walk'' made famous by Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, complete with Curly's trademark whoops. Airaldi plays a hyper-passionate Spaniard named Don Armado, complete with matador outfit, and energizes the production whenever he barrels onto the scene. (When he speaks, Airaldi rolls his R's halfway across the Common.)
The rest of the cast are costumed (by Nancy Leary) in quasi-Edwardian garb as they frolic and scheme on a storybook set (by Scott Bradley) that is dominated by a forest-green castle. A wordless, book-laden ballet devised by choreographer Yo-el Cassell opens the production, artfully framing the tug-of-war between abstract contemplation and worldly desire that will be central to subsequent events.
The Princess of France (Jennifer Ellis) has come to the kingdom to address a dispute over the Aquitaine region. The King of Navarre (Justin Blanchard) at first refuses to allow the Princess and her ladies within the gates, forcing them to set up camp in a field. But soon he is smitten with her, and his three lords are equally enamored of her three ladies.
Of these, Shakespeare is most interested in the witty, self-dramatizing Berowne (Jason Bowen) and the spirited Rosaline (Obehi Janice). The high-speed badinage between Berowne and Rosaline — who seem to have some history between them — is reminiscent of the banter between Beatrice and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing.''
As the king and the three lords seek to woo and win the princess and her three ladies, their task is complicated by a pair of misdirected missives and the simple fact that the women, though equally attracted, are determined to toy with the men. They even go so far as to switch identities in a scene in which the men woo them while disguised as Russians, a development that provides a pretext for an amusing dance sequence. Meanwhile, a rivalry is playing out between Armado and the equally clownish Costard (Larry Coen) over the affections of a country lass named Jaquenetta (Rachel Belleman).
You can't say Shakespeare was driven by egalitarian impulses at any point in his career, yet a strange kind of social equality, a parity between upper and lower class, emerges in "Love's Labour's Lost.'' Whatever your station in life, the playwright reminds us, it's hard to say no to love when it comes calling — and to avoid looking ludicrous while succumbing to it.
LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Steven Maler. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company on Boston Common. Through Aug. 7. Free. For reserved chairs, 617-426-0863, www.commshakes.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.