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An uncommon Shakespeare comedy for the Common

Margaret Clark in rehearsal for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Margaret Clark in rehearsal for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” photos by Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WELLESLEY — Onstage at Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater, about a dozen actors are working out the details of a complicated scene change. A few rectangular set pieces are moved around, and an actor rides atop one of them.

With this transition more or less in hand, director Steven Maler addresses everybody from the lip of the stage. They’re about to start their first run-through of the whole play, from end to end.

“Don’t worry, if you really have to stop, we’ll stop,” Maler says encouragingly. Then, with feigned curtness: “OK, good luck! See you in two hours.” Everyone laughs.

Laughter among the audience will be the desired result when Commonwealth Shakespeare Company performs “Love’s Labour’s Lost” for the 21st season of its Free Shakespeare on the Common performances, beginning Wednesday. But despite the play’s jest-heavy surface, it remains among William Shakespeare’s lesser-performed plays because it’s quite a handful.

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“The pitfalls of it are that it’s obsessed with language, with poetry, with the language of poetry — and that’s really dense,” Maler says in the theater lobby during the day’s dinner break. He sneaks in bites of sushi between thoughts, as Babson students chat nearby.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is among Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it includes obscure satire that may be lost on the thousands who will see the play on Boston Common. Its form reflects a key theme, that education can insulate people from direct experience — and that language can be a tool of separation rather than of coming together.

The story is simple. The King of Navarre (played here by Justin Blanchard) enlists three bachelor companions to begin a monk-like regime for three years while they zealously pursue knowledge. They earnestly pledge that they’ll eat just one meal a day, sleep three hours a night, and completely forswear the company of women.

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Then the beautiful Princess of France shows up (actress Jennifer Ellis), with her three attending ladies, all comely maidens. So much for that.

The four women add a contemporary-feeling element. No mere ornaments, they’re pretty much in charge as soon as they arrive on the scene, and never relinquish that power.

“The women have this control over how much they want to be wooed, or not,” says Obehi Janice, who makes her company debut as Rosaline, one of the princess’s ladies. “The idea of wit and the ability to use your words is really revered in this play, and there’s something about how the women take pride in our ability to be witty. There’s so much here about who has the power in these interactions among the four couples.”

The four men and four women here face off, in a sense, as they work out what it means to become a couple based on a stronger connection than just exchanging poetry about the lady’s beauty.

Maler and team set the action in an environment that suggests a New England college in the early 20th century. The idea is to conjure the sense of a “hyper-educated group of people who are trying to use their education, in a way, to distance themselves from the real challenges of the world, of engagement and connection,” he explains.

It’s a theme with plenty of relevance today.

“I think the struggle to be authentic and honest and connected and vulnerable is in some ways harder and harder as our communication gets more and more text-based, more and more digitalized,” Maler says. “What the play teaches us is that you have to break out of your shell, you have to break out of your library, you have to put yourself into the world and experience and engage with people.”

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As the schoolmaster Holofernes, Fred Sullivan Jr. has a particularly tough assignment. Holofernes is comical in his pretensions, and frequently speaks Latin incorrectly — making for jokes that Elizabethan audiences, who studied Latin and ancient Greek, understood more readily than their contemporary counterparts.

But the idea is to beef up the character’s buffoonishness in ways that will scan easily, even if some of the textural details are fuzzy.

“Sometimes when you get very academic, you can get cut off from what real life really is,” says Sullivan. “And [Holofernes] is the most frustrated case of that. I’m so in love with words and derivations of words and Latin that I am completely cut off.”

Though the bulk of the play is full-on comedy, a melancholy twist arrives near the end, sending things in an unexpected direction that defies the expectations of classical comedies and adds more depth to what came before.

Even if “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is not the most familiar of Shakespeare titles, its author does still display his famous knack for speaking to themes of perpetual relevance.

“It’s really a play about young people kind of learning how to love, learning how to be in a relationship, and growing up, really,” Maler says. “This notion of what it means to be in love, what it means to be partnered with someone, is still going to be around in another 400 years. We’re going to continue to ask these questions.”

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Love’s Labour’s Lost

Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Boston Common, July 20-Aug. 7. General seating is free. Reserved seating: 617-426-0863, www.commshakes.org


Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.