'Better the devil you know…' That seems to be the message of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new, spare, fast-paced production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

"Better the devil you know"…"

That seems to be the message of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new, spare, fast-paced production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Director Amanda Dehnert has delivered a sober allegory about political manipulation and the dangers of mob rule that seems ripped out of today's headlines. Here, a tyrant is toppled only to be replaced by chaos, civil war and the rise of yet another head of state more brutal and inflexible than the one replaced.

Is Caesar, the conquering hero, propelling Rome from a republic into a monarchy? That is what Cassius claims. Brutus, close friend of Caesar, is not quite sure. He is disturbed by how Caesar has filled the power vacuum and he's wary of Caesar's popularity. But Brutus is reluctant to cast Caesar as a tyrant.

Is Cassius the selfless patriot he claims to be? Or he is driven by envy and ambition?

We watch as Caesar, Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony each work the crowd — in this case, the audience — to achieve support of their political goals as the play's action inevitably descends into mob rule and bloodshed. As Mark Antony exclaims as he prepares to give Caesar's eulogy, "Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war." It doesn't come as a surprise that "Julius Caesar" ends with Octavius, Caesar's nephew and adopted heir, inexorably taking over without even the pretense of working with his peers.

To be sure, this is a stripped-down version of Shakespeare's play in text as well as production values. It's hard to tell what exactly has been cut because the plotting is so tight and the action moves so seamlessly. Usually, a director cuts Shakespeare's text to make a particular point, sell a particular interpretation. Certainly that is true here, but it is extremely effective. I doubt if anyone seeing this production will quibble about the trimming.

Director Dehnert's casting is flawless. Gregory Linington's Cassius certainly has that "lean and hungry look," the type of man that Caesar explains "thinks too much." In contrast, Jonathan Haugen's Brutus is tortured by his thinking. He is fair-minded but impetuous and the perfect foil for Cassius' plots. Danforth Comins as Mark Antony deftly moves from Caesar's loyal friend to his ambitious successor, charming and deadly.

Dehnert has thrown in another interesting plot twist by casting a strong woman, Vilma Silva, as Caesar. Suddenly, Cassius' diatribe against Caesar as he makes the case for overthrow takes on another dimension. Cassius' reproof that he is a better man than Caesar — whom he has bettered in a swim across the Tiber and who was seen shaking with chills and fever as well as in an epileptic fit — comes across here as a sexist rant. It is also no coincidence that Caesar's cold reasoning serves as a counterpoint to the impetuous and often unrealistic political scenarios of the other characters.

The action unfolds in the absolutely stripped-bare setting of the New Theatre. This is not only theater-in-the-round but theater-in-the-raw. Even before the play opens, the actors are mingling with the audience and each other. It is clear that the audience members — the vox populi — are an integral part of this production. Dehnert brings the audience into this play at every moment, using lighting and the trick of having the principals sit, run and declaim from scattered positions in the seating plan. She even has Silva coaching the audience before the play's start to cheer at key moments in the action.

Scenic designer Richard L. Hay (who has been with OSF for 54 seasons) has taken the bones of the New Theatre and used every inch, including the lighting booth, the scaffolding and the backstage areas usually hidden behind curtains. His only props are scrawled banners hanging over the entrances and some boxes, rough tables and chairs plucked from meeting rooms.

Costume designer Linda Roethke has dressed the cast in a subtle amalgam of hip-hop street wear with touches of timeless regal robe and military paraphernalia. In many cases, the cast seamlessly blends with the audience.

As we watch this "Julius Caesar," with whom do our sympathies lie? With a strong and capable but less-than-democratic strong woman? Or with the patriotic yet self-serving forces who topple her? Who or what replaces her when she is gone?

OSF's "Julius Caesar" is current, timely and extraordinarily well done. Add this one to your "must-see" list for OSF's 2011 season.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.