You might not recognize the Quintessence Theatre Company's Julius Caesar, on through April 29, in repertory with Ibsen's The Wild Duck (starting April 4). At least not at first.

In a brilliant move, director Alexander Burns gives us a 10-minute backstory to Julius Caesar, Brutus, and their friendship. Shakespeare's audience didn't need it, but we do. At the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar defeats Pompey and spares his beloved Brutus, who fought for the losing side. Caesar defeats Cato at Utica. These are cobbled together from a 16th-century masque, The Tragedy of Caesar's Revenge, which Shakespeare may have known, plus passages from Joseph Addison's Cato and John Masefield's Tragedy of Pompey the Great.

From there, this production crackles with tension. Conspirators glare desperate into one another's faces; men agonize before and after decisions. There is a central spasm of stylized, grievous violence; there's politics, rhetoric, uprising, war. Pacing is deft, letting this exquisitely crafted play work.

Paul Hebron is tremendous as Caesar. Shakespeare gives us just enough reason (maybe; it's questionable) to agree with his assassins. The prologue gives us more: his political machinations (he plays partisan politics to work around Pompey), his lusty pleasure in crossing the Rubicon and grabbing power. He's also valiant: As he goes down under the knives, he swings left and right. When he sees Brutus, his heart breaks, and he pulls in Brutus' knife himself.

We get some very fruitful gender-bending. The choric Discord is first Mary Tuomanen and later David Pica, suggesting that political chaos is of all genders, as it surely is. Tuomanen also plays Cassius, a martinet, envious, too ready to take offense, a source of comic energy. This accusing, cutting, complaining hard-guy soldier who "misconstrued everything" has a definite feminine side, and Tuomanen twigs delightfully and harshly to it. And I like how Brett Ashley Robinson plays Antony: At first sight of Caesar's butchery, there's both real shock and lightning political calculation. Yet there is care and psychological penetration in how she does not rush Antony's long, ironic, nuanced speech over the body of Caesar, letting the turning point turn.

Michael Brusasco's Brutus is both idiosyncratic and very effective. He's demonstrative, intimate with the audience, not the cool Stoic we often see. At his superb soliloquy in Act 2, Brusasco got a few tart chuckles at many lines, such as "Th'abuse of greatness is when it/ Disjoins remorse from power." He has high standards: "Let us be sacrificers, not butchers. … Let's kill him boldly but not wrathfully. … Our purpose necessary and not envious." Admirable, but naïve, standing on principle when all about him are simply settling scores.

From the outset, there is a querulous note to this Brutus. When fortune goes bad, he fairly screams at Cassius in his tent, surely a divergence from the classical, staid cool of many Brutuses. He also maintains a slight, ironic smile, as when he sees all is lost. This Brutus is never totally sure of himself and will stand up to all consequences. This Brutus is more tragic, more to be mourned. This is a Julius Caesar worth seeing, raising all the conflicted issues that have engrossed and appalled audiences for centuries, not least our own.

Theater

Julius Caesar

    • Through April 29 at the Quintessence Theatre Company, 7137 Germantown Avenue. Tickets: $15-$30. Information: 215-987-4450, quintessencetheatre.org.