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When the political becomes the personal

Some directors become captives of what they do well. Others, you never know what you're going to get.

Amanda Dehnert two years ago directed a fairy-tale production of "All's Well That Ends Well" for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that took the play to new and provocative places. But the "Julius Caesar" that opened Saturday night in the OSF's New Theatre is lean, taut and stripped to the bone, sans bells, sans whistles, sans pretty much everything.

Except passion. With the New Theatre in the arena configuration, actors clad in a lot of black turned an intimate playing space with no scenery into an kinetic, nightmare vision of the turmoil that comes in the wake of political violence. The absence of any of the pomp that once dominated productions of the play had the effect of keeping in sharp focus the play's main action: the unpredictable chaos that follows the deposal and killing of a strong leader by a coalition trying to do good.

To underscore the existential complexities of violent regime change, large banners bearing the likenesses of assassinated leaders from Abraham Lincoln to Che Guevara hang outside the theater and in the lobby. In the back of the auditorium's four sides are banners with Caesar's name, but no likeness.

Jonathan Haugen's Brutus, who for some reason wears a kilt, is elemental and fiery and less the intellectual (he can be seen as a sketch for Hamlet) than he's often portrayed as, in keeping with the production's furious style. Gregory Linington's Cassius is a firebrand who's wound a couple notches more tightly still.

Danforth Comins brings a menacing physicality to wild-boy Antony, whose role it is to embody chaos and turn loose the havoc enabled by Brutus, who makes every possible wrong decision. Antony may remind you of Comins' Coriolanus with maybe a touch of Hotspur as he ritually shakes the conspirators' hands, marking them yet again with Caesar's blood.

But the marquee casting choice is Vilma Silva as Julius Caesar. This is not gender-blind casting a la color-blind casting, in which, for example, Chekhov's three sisters may be played by actors who are black, white and Asian, but you see them just as sisters. The other actors use feminine pronouns in talking about Caesar, who is clearly a woman.

Caesar is not a big part. The character only has three scenes. But he (or she) is a god-like figure who obsesses everybody in the first half of the play and dominates the second half even dead. The conspirators killed the private person but not the god/legend. Silva asked the audience to make noise whenever she made a gesture, and the crowd willingly supplied the roar of the rabble.

There are a lot of black boots and jeans in this production, and Silva is clad in white, which sets Caesar apart. Caesar's dream before going to the forum is rendered in a nice bit of stage business, but since Caesar is a woman, the part of Calpurnia has been cut from the play.

The assassination is bloody, violent and highly theatrical. The rest of the play is haunted by great Caesar's ghost, a spectral Silva in her bloody white gown and silver-gray makeup, which she daubs on other characters as they die.

Why a female Caesar in an otherwise no-nonsense production that's anything but high concept? Cast a female as, say, Prospero, in "The Tempest," as the OSF did some years back, and you shift something deep in the the play. But Caesar is no Prospero; this is Brutus's story, and to a lesser extent Antony's.

I don't know, but here's a theory. Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with Roman history and aware of parallels between ancient Rome and Elizabethan England. Elizabeth, like Caesar, was the target of conspiracies. Also like Caesar, she produced no heir. Just as the play's famously anachronistic clock brought the play into the present for the Elizabethans, Silva's Caesar resonates for us in the present because we've seen the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto and Indira Ghandi.

Maybe. This 'Caesar' is an intimate, compelling, somewhat breathless take on political violence. The irony is that it all leads to the rise of the New Political Man in the form of Octavius. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, Shakespeare was saying 400 years ago.

So was it worth it? Shakespeare never preaches, never makes it easy for us, and Dehnert doesn't either. But although there's nothing overt to suggest it, I'll bet you can't see this play and not think of Iraq.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

An unsuspecting Caesar (Vilma Silva, left) shares a bowl of wine with Brutus (Jonathan Haugen) in OSF’s production of “Julius Caesar,” directed by Amanda Dehnert.