Cody Nickell and Shirine Babb in “Antony and Cleopatra.” (Teresa Wood/Teresa Wood)
Theater critic

Antony and Cleopatra are Shakespeare's rock stars, swaggering international celebrities snared in a legendary bad romance. Antony wears tight leather pants and a chest-baring blouse in the new staging at the Folger Theatre, with playful blue eye shadow on his love-drunk face. Cleopatra is a barefoot goddess in a high-slit gown that looks like gold and stardust. They frolic on plush cushions. The world is their pleasure dome.

You could make "Antony and Cleopatra" arena-scale and get away with it; the passions and prima donna reversals are that grand. Director Robert Richmond goes the other way at the Folger, making a rare conversion of the 250-ish seat Elizabethan stage to a cozy in-the-round space. Rome and Egypt are boiled down to room size. The political has always been personal in this tragedy, but this feels like a particularly reduced micro-view.

That's partly because this is a notably lean cut of the script, listing 13 characters (and only 10 actors) for a story Shakespeare peopled with three dozen. The show still runs 2½ hours as it watches Antony squirm between his attraction to Cleopatra and his duty to the Roman empire. As set designer Tony Cisek's set rotates and Andrew F. Griffin's


Shirine Babb as Cleopatra. (Teresa Wood/Teresa Wood)

lights sparkle, the production manages to conjure one very effective sea battle and several touches of pomp. But it's mostly idiosyncratic egos and preening emotions that occupy this compact center stage.

This work from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and "King Lear" period doesn't have the hurtling tension of those tragedies or the expansive spirit of the romances to come, and Richmond's clear vision may simplify too much. Cody Nickell and Shirine Babb beautifully embody the powerful lovers in Mariah Hale's fabulous and flattering costumes, and they command our attention as if by birthright. But they don't often find tones between joy and anger. These unruly rulers swoon with lust or erupt into fits of pique. Like pleasure-saturated celebs, they wear their welcome out.

The muscular economy of Richmond's approach has its appeal, though. The laid-back elegance of Egypt, suggested simply by Cleopatra's two close attendants and a eunuch, exists simultaneously with the darker Rome of Octavius Caesar and his leather-armored circle. Roman conferences are amplified by microphones, with messengers sometimes appearing in the Folger balconies. The orbits are clear.

That makes Antony's dilemma vivid, even if his feelings about it churn and obscure his thinking, which is worth exploring. The calculations are intriguing as Nickell's Antony ponders marrying Octavius's sister to firm up the political alliance. It's a chess move, and it draws you to Antony to see how shrewdly Nickell balances the options.

Babb has a similar sequence when Cleopatra leads her navy into battle alongside Antony, who ruinously follows her when she bails for Egypt. Again, it's interesting to watch as Babb's Cleopatra deals with the multiple levels of the relationship. These complications are more dramatic than the diva behavior that characterizes too much of the role.

Dylan Paul is a haughty, youthful Octavius Caesar and Nigel Gore gives a flexible, personable performance as Antony's plain-talking sidekick Enobarbus, but this is a play that belongs to the supernovas. Nickell and Babb don't surprise you much, but they sure burn bright.

Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Music composition and sound design, Adam Stamper. With Simoné Elizabeth Bart, John Floyd, Robbie Gay, Chris Genebach, Nicole King and Anthony Michael Martinez. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Nov. 19 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets $35-$79. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.