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An ancient and modern story

"Julius Caesar" used to be the first Shakespeare play taught in American high schools. Teachers of another era were comfortable with the complete absence of sexuality — a rarity in Shakespeare — and students were captivated by the sweep of violence.

Amanda Dehnert, who is directing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's first "Julius Caesar" in almost a decade, thinks the play is more complicated than people realized.

"I don't think I would have been ready to direct it at 19 or 20," she says.

"Julius Caesar" will open Saturday, March 26, in OSF's intimate New Theatre, with Jonathan Haugen as Brutus, Gregory Linington as Cassius and Danforth Comins as Anthony. Vilma Silva will play Caesar.

Dehnert says Richard Hay's set does not represent a specific era or locale. Rather, it's designed so as to let the audience think of all times and places.

"Once you pick a single historical code, the '30s, whatever, you can limit people's perceptions," she says. "(This production) wants to imply this is an ancient and modern story, relying on the audience."

Over the years, productions of the play have variously emphasized the noble side of Brutus in overthrowing a would-be tyrant to the tragically foolish side of Brutus acting wrongly and unleashing chaos. In the 1930s, Orson Welles directed a famous production in which actors wore jackboots, and the political themes represented the rise of fascism.

Morality is somewhat ambiguous in the play's world, and Elizabethan audiences would have seen it as closely akin to their own. When the common people blow off their work and celebrate Caesar's victory over Pompey, officials grow alarmed. A soothsayer warns Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March," violent storms rock the city, omens and dreams are multiplying, and if Cassius can sway Brutus, the conspirators could change history. Caesar was bigger than life, as was Queen Elizabeth.

"Julius Caesar" is one of Shakespeare's most carefully plotted plays. Part political thriller, part ghost story, part revenge play, it is also highly complex. But Dehnert says it's finally a story about people.

"Shakespeare plays are stories, just like anything else," she says. "When I read them I have a response as a reader. It affects me, and I rely on that initial impulse to come to terms with what the story is about.

"I think what's great about Shakespeare is the characters are human and flawed. They're always trying their best. I like to crawl into the story and pretend I'm everybody.

"We want to connect. It's my job to put something into the world that can do that."

Dehnert is an assistant professor at Northwestern University's theater department. Her recent credits include "Cabaret" for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, "Romeo and Juliet" for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and an innovative, fairy tale-like production of "All's Well That Ends Well" in OSF's New Theatre in 2009. She also is a resident director with Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.

When she talks about "Julius Caesar," she speaks as if the characters were real people.

"It's people doing their best in a very intense situation," she says. "It's not a history play. It's something wonderfully universal. A popular leader has done good."

But a society is moving toward dictatorship.

"It's a real human impulse to elevate our leaders almost beyond our reach," Dehnert says. "People wanted George Washington to be president for life."

After the conspirators kill Caesar they ritually bathe their hands in his blood, and Anthony ritually shakes their hands. Brutus tells the mob he killed Caesar for the good of Rome, but Anthony, in that famous oration, turns the plebeians' acceptance to cries for revenge.

"There's death, an extreme action, an aftermath," Dehnert says. "That cycle is very true of human history. It's horrible, and there's no answer. It's an important story to spend time with.

"As far as I can tell, there's never been an assassination with good consequences."

For ticket availability and prices, call the OSF box office at 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org.

Mark Anthony (Danforth Comins) grieves for the murdered Caesar in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'Julius Caesar,' directed by Amanda Dehnert. - Photo by Jenny Graham