Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) flirts with Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) in their namesake tragedy by Shakespeare. Its director at the Folger, Robert Richmond, “can take a very complex story . . . and energize the stage,” says Folger’s Janet Griffin, which was crucial for the epic love story, which takes place in sites across the Mediterranean. (Teresa Wood/Teresa Wood)

As an associate artist at the Folger Theatre, Robert Richmond is obligated to direct one play per season. When artistic producer Janet Griffin is deciding which show to give him, she usually avoids the Bard's most popular shows ("Hamlet," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet" and the like) and steers Richmond to the infrequently produced titles, the histories and the dramas that fall through the cracks between tragedy and comedy. He's her go-to guy when she needs to build a bridge between the audience and challenging plays such as "Timon of Athens" or "Henry VIII."

"Robert can take a very complex story — a thorny problem play or a mammoth history — and energize the stage, visually as well as verbally," Griffin says. "He can create the great, big gesture with a theatrical sweep that's almost cinematic."

For this season, Richmond's assignment is "Antony and Cleopatra," which opens this weekend. "If we had to burn all Shakespeare's plays, bar one — luckily we don't — I'd save 'Antony and Cleopatra,' " W.H. Auden once said. He's not alone in this estimation, but it's staged far less than its immediate predecessors, "King Lear" and "Macbeth." Why? "Antony & Cleopatra" is long, and it bounces around locations all over the Mediterranean. Its characters don't evolve on a recognizable trajectory, but zigzag between selfless heroism and selfish pleasure, between clever strategies and boneheaded mistakes in a way that makes it difficult for an audience to get a fix on them.

Such real-world ambiguity, of course, is the basis of the play's greatness, but it requires an imaginative director to clarify those paradoxes, even if they can't be resolved. To prepare himself for the play, Richmond spent several days in Rome in June, visiting the ruins. There was something about this former imperial capital that felt different from the powerful capital where the Folger is located. There was something about the wine and the way the light glanced off the marble that felt very Mediterranean and linked Antony's Rome to Cleopatra's Alexandria.

This connection is reinforced by the dialogue. "Our separation so abides and flies," Antony tells Cleopatra as he's leaving her to return home to Rome, "that thou residing here goes yet with me, and I hence fleeting here remain with thee." Each lover will be present in the other's mind, even when they're separated by a sea.

"I asked myself, 'Is it possible to keep both worlds happening at the same time?' " Richmond recalls. "Could we have Rome and Egypt onstage simultaneously and leave it to the lights, costumes and sounds to tell the audience which realm to focus on? But the other actors wouldn't go away — the Egyptian actors might still be onstage even when they have no lines. While Antony is in Rome, Cleopatra might be right there on the other half of the stage. It would be as if he and Octavius are imagining her as they talk about her."

Fearing the death of his beloved Cleopatra, Mark Antony (Cody Nickell, left) asks Eros (Anthony Michael Martinez) to end his life in “Antony and Cleopatra.” (Teresa Wood/Teresa Wood)

When Richmond started rehearsing, he found that this approach sped up the show's tempo. No longer did you have to wait while one crew of actors exited and another entered. With a refocusing of the lights, you could shift from Europe to Africa with the suddenness of a movie jump cut rather than the deliberation of a theatrical scene change.

The next challenge was to give the personal relationships as much weight as the geopolitical maneuvering. On the one hand, Antony and Octavius Caesar are trying to gain control of the entire Mediterranean world — first as allies and then as rivals. On the other hand, Antony deserts his new wife, Octavius's sister Octavia, to sail back to his lover Cleopatra, herself the ruler of an empire and the former mistress of Octavius's great-uncle Julius. What the characters do at work is affected by what they do at home — and vice versa.

"I didn't want to make another Roman spectacle like 'Spartacus' or Richard Burton's 'Cleopatra,' " Richmond says. "I wanted to show what these people are like behind closed doors. I wanted you to feel you were in the room with them, making love with them, arguing with them.

"So I took the seats out of the center of the room and put the stage there, so the audience is four-sided. Suddenly the show becomes very intimate. It challenges everyone — cast, crew and audience alike — to give up the safe distance provided by the proscenium. It also becomes a shared experience, because you can see other people reacting to the show at the same time you are. And that harks back to the Globe, where Shakespeare's actors performed in daylight."

Antony's problem becomes the problem of every white-collar careerist in Washington: How much time and energy do you give to your job and how much to your loved ones at home? Not just Octavius, but nearly every Roman soldier condemns Antony's love affair as a dereliction of duty. Shakespeare, a writer self-disciplined enough to write 38 plays and to live apart from his wife and children for most of each year, surely agrees with them intellectually. But he gives his richest language to the lovers and seems intoxicated by their ill-advised romance. The author may be as torn as Antony. The director, too.

"It's a difficult play," Richmond concedes, "because it's ambivalent in so many ways. What do we learn from the play? Mature people can behave very immaturely. Very important people can make bad decisions. Men and women can coexist harmoniously at certain times and not very well at others. And politics haven't really changed. The ruthless way that Octavius pursues power is just as prevalent today as it was in ancient Rome."

If you go
Antony and Cleopatra

Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077.

Dates: Through Nov. 19.

Tickets: $35-$79.