Bare Theatre's Much Ado About Nothing is a competent and accessible production of one of Shakespeare's best comedies, but in its central characters, it seems to lack something critical. The play focuses on wit, love and misunderstandings, contrasting the sarcastic Beatrice and Benedick against the more naive relationship of Hero and Claudio; the former have to overcome their cynicism, the latter their jealousy.
However, the production's interest lies mostly in peripheral elements. Director G. Todd Buker has set out, as he explains in the program notes, to expand upon some minor, oft-overlooked aspects of the play. His best embellishment is a clowning troupe that appears on stage before the first act and throughout the show as the stage crew. They eventually appear as "The Watch," minor comic characters in the original script that have become an essential and memorable part of the production. The clowning is fun and inspired; the actors have studied their Laurel and Hardy and could produce a vaudeville show all on their own if they chose.
Unfortunately, by expanding on these minor elements, Buker makes some aspects of the main story line seem decidedly minor. The heart of any production of Much Ado should be the repartee between Benedick and Beatrice, and while the actors (Jeff Aguiar and Olivia Griego) do an admirable job, their relationship feels oddly slighted. I couldn't tell whether this is because the text has been abridged or if the play's other entertainments were distracting, but the production feels like it lacks an anchor. The darker, more disturbing second half suffers especially from this, since the efforts of Benedick and Beatrice to team up and resolve the dispute between Claudio (Jason Bailey) and Hero (Ashley Lorenz) aren't effective when their previous animosity was so offhandedly portrayed.
The minor elements still largely work, however. Matt Schedler plays Hero's father Leonato as neither cruel nor foolish (two easy but obvious options available for the role) and David Klionsky's evil Don John is a delight. He hams it up, making John as cartoonish as possible. It's appropriate, not only for the often opaque villain but for the clownish, carnival-esque proceedings surrounding him. The steampunk costumes and animated backdrops are effective without being distracting, and Buker manages to block and move the play's large number of characters across a small stage without it ever feeling crowded or awkward. Alas, it's a production missing something at its heart, never a good thing for a romantic comedy.