Saturday, Oct. 8, in Madison, N.J., The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s press opening of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” saw a stunned audience deeply moved by this swift, intense, historically informed tragedy, a complex and complicated web of murderous political intrigue not dissimilar to today’s election campaign. Fifteen actors portrayed the 22 characters that first populate then depopulate the story in which everyone dies but the director. Some meet their grisly end onstage, others out of sight but just as shocking.

Hastings’ head hung upon an 'if'

Richard has practically everyone murdered. He accuses his bereft sister-in-law, Elizabeth, of casting a spell on him, withering his hand into twisted deformity. Lord Hastings, his loyal supporter, says “If Elizabeth has done this …” The monstrous monarch interrupts: “If?” So begins a disturbing Off-with-his-head/Oh-I-was-only-joking/No-I-wasn’t cat-and-mouse exchange, a prime example of Richard’s warped, sardonic humor that indeed ends with Hastings’ disembodied head in a bloodied burlap bag.

Title honors

Derek Wilson repugnantly embodies the slithering, sickeningly sinister sovereign. Costume designer Kristin Isola gives him the ugliest attire, as befits the character’s true character, and Mr. Wilson hunches and slumps and limps on a severely twisted leg as if born deformed. He’ll need a good orthopedic surgeon by run’s end. Hardly ever absent from the stage, the Actor delivered Richard’s extensive monologues and intricate ironic dialogues with natural ease and precision.

Strong women

Shakespeare crafted clearly delineated characters for the four queens. Amaia Arana plays Lady Anne, grieving at the outset over her husband, father and father-in-law’s murders, yet somehow suddenly marrying their murderer. It gratifies to see her in a major rolesince she recently played the title character’s wife in “Coriolanus”—a bit of a cipher, always showing up but not having much to say.

She is at her best when hurling venomous rebukes at Richard and spitting him in the face.

A second queen in peril

Gretchen Hall in a stunning debut plays Queen Elizabeth, whose two young sons Richard’s hired assassins murder. Then, on the heels of doing away with Lady Anne—briefly his queen—he practically ravishes Elizabeth to convince her to persuade her young daughter, also Elizabeth, to marry him. When she objects “But thou didst kill my children,” his chilling excuse is: “But in your daughter’s womb I bury them:/Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed/Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.” Brrr!

Elderly royals

Queen Margaret and the unnamed Duchess of York are the other important women inhabiting this drama. Carol Halstead and Ellen Fiske (debut) fully inhabit these roles, the former as a shrewish prophetess, the vengeful exile back from banishment to haunt and taunt Richard, the latter the object of all sympathy as the forlorn mother, as repentant of giving birth to such a villainous son as she is grief-stricken for the death of her other two sons and three grandsons at his hand.

Supporting roles

John Hickok is an elegant Duke of Buckingham, unwisely supporting Richard and ending up—guess what—betrayed and dispatched.

Sheffield Chastain is a creepy Sir William Catesby, Richard’s main thug and hitman. Ames Adamson is William, Lord Hastings, who begins promisingly, being delivered from the Tower of London by Edward only to end up partially decked out in Richard’s aforementioned burlap.

Yet more debuts

Youngsters Ben Hajek and Metin Akcay are the tenderest murder victims, Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York. Chris Hietikko plays three roles, chiefly Edward IV, Richard’s infirm brother, and John Keabler plays four, notably their brother George, whose gruesome assassination in the Tower prison may prove a bit too realistic for audience members younger than 65.

Go see Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” until Nov. 6, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J.

Don't miss our page on Facebook!