Shakespeare wrote about love in all its guises, from the young love of Romeo and Juliet to the mature love of Antony and Cleopatra. In "Twelfth Night" he examined the very nature of love, how it is desired, needed and chased by everyone.

As the brilliant, whimsical "Twelfth Night" at the Folger Theatre illustrates, Shakespeare also showed how this need for love makes people lose all reason. Sensitively directed by Robert Richmond, Folger's "Twelfth Night" brings out the play's intense comedy, while retaining a touch of sympathy for the character whose love is unrequited.

"Twelfth Night" is the story of a young woman, Viola (Emily Trask), who is separated from her beloved brother, Sebastian (William Vaughan), off the coast of Illyria when their ship is wrecked during a storm. Viola finds her way to the court of Duke Orsino (Michael Brusasco), where she dresses as a boy and becomes the duke's page, Cesario.

Orsino adores Olivia (Rachel Pickup), who rejects him, but when Viola goes to call on Olivia on the duke's behalf, Olivia is entranced by Cesario. Feste (Louis Butelli) in this production is a high-spirited master of ceremonies, singing and philosophizing about life, love and folly.

'Twelfth Night'
» Where: Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 Capitol St. SE
» When: Through June 9
» Info: $30 to $68; 202-544-7077;

The subplot, involving Sir Toby Belch (Craig Wallace) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Konicek) provides hearty comedy. When Olivia's witty servant, Maria (Tonya Beckman), plays a trick on Olivia's insufferable, stuffy steward, Malvolio (Richard Sheridan Willis), by providing him with false love letters that he thinks are from his beloved Olivia, Malvolio falls for the ruse, to everyone's delight.

Richmond has cleverly transferred the action to a country south of Ireland, near where the Lusitania sank in 1915. The transfer allows him to use the customs of an age that cherished luxury.

Costume designer Mariah Hale plays up that period's elegance. When Viola dresses as a man, she wears a tuxedo. Olivia and Maria wear graceful Edwardian gowns. Tony Cisek's set uses deep blue and purple curtains and a huge Tiffany glass medallion hanging over the stage, whose floor is royal blue flecked with gold.

Richmond's cast is superb. Butelli is wise and ebullient as the play's narrator. Trask's Viola is winsome and sprightly. Pickup is deliciously dotty as the deceived Olivia. Willis is inspired as the duped, humiliated Malvolio. Konicek, Wallace and Beckman make a stellar comic trio.

Joshua Morgan's musical direction employs everything from "Daisy, Daisy" to Debussy's "Claire de Lune" to original Shakespearean songs set to contemporary beats, sung by Feste accompanying himself on the ukelele. The upbeat music helps create the optimistic world of this "Twelfth Night," an enchanted place where everyone is simply waiting for love.