We present a mechanically active cell culture substrate that produces complex strain patterns and generates extremely high strain rates. The transparent miniaturized cell stretcher is compatible with live cell microscopy and provides a very compact and portable alternative to other systems. A cell monolayer is cultured on a dielectric elastomer actuator (DEA) made of a 30 μm thick silicone membrane sandwiched between stretchable electrodes. A potential difference of several kV’s is applied across the electrodes to generate electrostatic forces and induce mechanical deformation of the silicone membrane. The DEA cell stretcher we present here applies up to 38% tensile and 12% compressive strain, while allowing real-time live cell imaging. It reaches the set strain in well under 1 ms and generates strain rates as high as 870 s−1, or 87%/ms. With the unique capability to stretch and compress cells, our ultra-fast device can reproduce the rich mechanical environment experienced by cells in normal physiological conditions, as well as in extreme conditions such as blunt force trauma. This new tool will help solving lingering questions in the field of mechanobiology, including the strainrate dependence of axonal injury and the role of mechanics in actin stress fiber kinetics.