The basic plot line of the comedy follows the formula of many a Shakespearean comedy, which also looks a lot like a modern romantic comedy: There are two sets of young couples in love who must overcome a series of misunderstandings and roadblocks in order to get to the wedding at the end of the play.
In "Much Ado About Nothing," the two couples are young Claudio and Hero (who fall madly in love at first sight), and Beatrice and Benedick, (who have known each other for years and have a deeper understanding of one another). The older couple is in love denial, and they thrive on trading insults. In spite of their apparent maturity, their relationship bears a striking similarity to many a middle-school courtship.
Their lively banter-as-flirtation is a façade that blinds them both to the fact that they fell in love with one another long ago. Their friends concoct an elaborate deceit to convince each to fall in love. This trickery is the only thing that can make the two lovers acknowledge the true emotion that runs beneath their superficial sparring.
The difference between appearance and reality is a running theme throughout the play - mistaken identity, mistaken intentions, misunderstood emotions abound. The play itself can even be mistaken: Its lighthearted surface is a veneer over deeper meditations on deception, betrayal, shame and vengeance.
To add another layer to the Vpstart Crow production, director Patrick Torres chose to set the action in 1945 America. In the program notes, Torres ties this production to the war in Iraq.
"I found myself daydreaming about the day when our troops will return home," Torres wrote "I started to consider what it must have been like in homes across the country at the end of World War II, as families and lovers were reunited, the world seemed at peace, and our country was beginning to prosper."
In the first scene of the play, there's a moment of mental shock as the brain tries to reconcile the 1940s costumes with Shakespearean dialog and references to Messina (a city on the coast of Sicily) on a suburban American white-picket-fence set, but the disorientation only lasts a few minutes. The time and setting changes are not overly strained or jarring, due to the efforts of set designer James Jones and costume designer Jamie Bartosavage Erdman.
The actors also do their job of smoothing out the differences between modern and Elizabethan English by filling in forgotten meanings with hand gestures and physical comedy.
As the action gets rolling, the villain Don John (Jay Mahan) pulls the strings of other people's lives to cause personal catastrophes for the characters. But in this play, even the good guys are manipulative and deceitful.
If Helen Pafumi as Beatrice and David Snider as Benedick did not make their characters so delightfully in love and so completely oblivious to their own emotions, the machinations of their family and friends to make the two fall in love would seem evil. Instead, the ruse is a much-needed favor that forces two lovers to finally open their eyes.
There is much to praise in this production. Vpstart Crow has developed a reliable relationship with comedy, and "Ado" is no exception.
The weakest point occurs at the dramatic climax of the play, when Claudio (Chris Whitney) accuses the innocent Hero (Megan Dominy) of infidelity at what should have been their wedding. Whitney, who had earned his share of laughs earlier in the play, lost a little momentum in the crisis.
In the climactic scene, the action occurs on the theater floor instead of on the stage. Unless audience members were sitting in the front row, they could see only the backs of the heads of the people in front of them, not the wincing face of Hero, who lay out of view on the floor, and not the faces of her accusers, who were turned toward her with their backs to the audience.
Compounding the problem, Whitney and Leonato (Paul Rubenstein), turned the vocal volume up a few notches too high as their characters berated Hero, rendering their dialog unintelligible.
Minor glitches aside, this production provides a lot of laughs and plenty of food for thought.
"Much Ado About Nothing" runs through March 18 at the Cramer Center, 9008 Center Street in Old Town Manassas. Show times are 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students, seniors and city employees.
For more information, visit www.vpstartcrow.com.