"I'M A BIG believer that as long as you find the right period and it fits everything in the play, Shakespeare can be modernized," explains Nick Hutchison, who is at the helm of the Folger Theatre's production of "Much Ado About Nothing."

But that doesn't mean anything goes.

Although the director is too polite to name names, he recalls with amusement one "Romeo and Juliet" that was all about the beautifully engineered Alfa Romeo that Mercutio maneuvered around the stage. "For me," he says bluntly, "updating Shakespeare doesn't work unless the concept fits every aspect of the play. That [car] seemed to be the starting and finishing point of the whole concept. It's a one-minute gag in a three-hour play. That's product placement, for God's sake."

Product placement is the last thing on Hutchison's mind. He's an actor and director who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and for Folger is fashioning a "Much Ado" set in the heady days after World War II. He has enlisted a team of designers -- James Kronzer on sets, Dan Covey on lights, Kate Turner-Walker on costumes and Martin Desjardins on music and sound -- all in the service of a romantic comedy that takes V-E Day as its jumping-off place.

Hutchison's "Much Ado" opens on May 8, 1945, as the world marks the defeat of Hitler's army and gropes its way out of the dark of war -- literally. "I'm going to start with the blackout coming down and lights coming back into London," he says.

Shakespeare's comedy concerns two couples, one of whose wedding is thwarted by false rumors, Hero (Tiffany Fillmore) and Claudio (Dean Alai). The other -- infamous -- pair is Beatrice (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Benedick (P.J. Sosko), ensconced in a "merry war" of sparring wits. Hutchison notes that "Much Ado" has always played out against a backdrop of war's aftermath. "One of the starting points, is that . . . the guys are coming back from the field of battle, coming back victorious. And the euphoria, the excitement, means that you don't notice the worm in their midst," he says, referring to Don John (Jim Jorgensen), the malevolent rumormonger who upsets Claudio and Hero's nuptials.

Why V-E Day? "Historically there were hundreds of thousands of American GIs billeted in the U.K. throughout the war. There were a lot of war brides, a lot of English girls came back to the states and married Americans."

The soldiers are American GIs and their love interests and foils -- Beatrice, Hero and Margaret (Liz Mamana) -- are in Hutchison's mind "not just idle rich who sat around and waited for the war to end." They were working English girls: Beatrice was a nurse, and Margaret and Hero knuckled down and helped with the war effort. But the all-important clash of cultures remains intact. "You've got these civilians and this huge influx of soldiers, which is exciting and frightening at the same time. It's two worlds slightly at odds, civilian and military, British and American."

"Much Ado," reconstituted for a postwar moment, is filled with the bright brass of big-band music. With its duet of lovers, comedic burlesques, masked celebrations, impeded courtships and mischievous matchmaking, there's much lightness and pleasure in Hutchison's staging. Yet the director is adamant about not overlooking darker subtexts.

"Like all Shakespeare's comedies, it's very serious. They're very funny, but they have serious undertones and serious things to say. The tragedies can be very funny in places and the comedies can be very dark, and that's what I wanted to explore. It's very, very funny, very romantic, but it's also real."

Director Nick Hutchison, left, with Kate Eastwood Norris and P.J. Sosko, who play warring lovers Beatrice and Benedick in Folger Theatre's post-World War II-set "Much Ado About Nothing."