SPRING GREEN, Wis. -

You can make a case that the real star of the American Players Theatre production of "Richard III" doesn't even take the stage.

Director James DeVita, better known to most as one of the theater company's most popular actors, managed to convey the horror and excitement of Shakespeare's tragedy in a production that keeps the audience mesmerized for more than three hours.

That's not easy to do. Shakespeare writes in verse; his plays are long and his plots complicated, none of which makes his work easy fodder for today's iPad audience.  

DeVita pulls it off.

It does help to have good actors.

James Ridge, now in his 15th season at APT, nails the title role.

Though it doesn't seem that way at first. At first, Ridge seems a bit goofy, an obvious misfit in the royal family of King Edward IV. As the play progresses, and as Richard ascends to the throne, mostly by having all his rivals assassinated, he becomes darker and darker -- and increasingly paranoid. Ridge gives an absolutely masterful performance.

As do Colleen Madden, who portrays Edward's wife; Sarah Day, who portrays Richard's mother, and Tracy Michelle Arnold, who portrays Margaret, widow of King Henry V.

The plot is somewhat simple. King Edward is in failing health. The royal court is preparing his son, Edward, to succeed him. Richard, the king's physically deformed brother -- a man who, we know, murdered a previous king -- engages in a murderous quest to gain the throne for himself.

In so doing, he betrays everyone who trusts him and sets himself up for final defeat.

The women in the play are the only characters with backbone and they, DeVita notes, serve as the conscience of the realm, pointing fingers of guilt at Richard continuously.

DeVita sets the play not in ancient England but in some setting reminiscent of World War II. The action is fast-paced -- if you bring your teenage son to only one Shakespearian play in his life, this is the one for the job -- and the dialogue is surprisingly easy to understand.

All in all, it is a marvelous production, one of the best of the season.