What better way for Shakespearean specialist David Hammond to begin his 20th season as artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company than with this passionate performance of the Immortal Bard’s controversial 16th-century chronicle play, The Tragedy of King Richard II, starring Chandler Williams as Richard and Antony Hagopian as his cousin and nemesis Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV). Richard II will play Tuesday-Sunday through Nov 7th in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theatre.

By adding a pithy prologue drawn from another play possibly penned by Shakespeare, and by staging the show in ambiguously modern/medieval costumes on a soaring set of a glass-walled skyscraper rising from medieval ruins both magnificently designed by Bill Clarke, Hammond has created a Richard II for our time. Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, sound designer M. Anthony Reimer, voice coach Bonnie Raphael, and movement coach Craig Turner also help Hammond transform Richard II from a venerable historical drama into a modern morality tale, as apt in the 21st century as in was in the 16th.

Thus, PRC’s emotionally wrenching presentation of Richard II is more than a pageant or a mere reenactment of some long-forgotten 14th-century political contretemps. It is a pre-Election 2004 special, a warning to the theatergoing public about the dangers of choosing a weak and indecisive leader in time of great peril at home and abroad.

When this play debuted toward the end of the reign of the childless Queen Elizabeth I, who had no obvious successor, it was banned, because playwright William Shakespeare made royal theatergoers and the Virgin Queen’s intimates squirm with his incisive portrait of the calamities that ensued when the historical Richard II provoked an uprising among the English nobility; was deposed by them; imprisoned abroad; and, later, murdered in his cell under highly mysterious circumstances.

Chandler Williams creates a poignant portrait of the shy and bookish Richard II, the former boy-king whose rash and ill-advised decision to banish both the quarreling Thomas Mowbray (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Bolingbroke (Antony Hagopian), Duke of Hereford, created implacable enemies in both camps and sowed the seeds of future uprisings that would combine to topple his throne. Hagopian and Cornell give gritty performances as brash, bickering dukes who want to settle their differences with a sword.

Kenneth P. Strong is impressive as Richard’s ailing elderly uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; and Adair Weiss poignantly portrays John’s sister-in-law, Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, whose hapless husband (played by James Kalagher) is smothered during the prologue added by director David Hammond. Other noteworthy performances to name only a few include Tandy Cronyn’s portrayal of the Duchess of York, Ray Dooley’s impersonation of the Earl of Northumberland, and Joseph Bowen’s portrait of the Duke of York.

From the greatest stars to the most humble players in cameo roles, crisp characterizations and sharp Shakespearean diction are prime factors in the success of PlayMakers’ production of Richard II. Thanks to the Shakespearean expertise and theatrical genius of director David Hammond and his peerless team of designers, the current production of this important, but lesser-known Shakespearean tragedy (hereabouts) will make an indelible impression on a new generation of Triangle theatergoers.

Note: PlayMakers has just installed a new assisted-listening system, based on FM technology, to better serve the company’s patrons who have hearing impairments. Carolina Meadows of Chapel Hill, a not-for-profit continuing-care retirement community, funded the project.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Tragedy of King Richard II Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 19-23 and 26-30 and Nov. 2-6, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 24 and 31 and Nov. 7, at 2 p.m. in Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (7529). PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=17. University of Virginia (Shakespeare Resources): http://etext.virginia.edu/shakespeare/. University of Virginia (Richard II Text, 1623 First Folio, edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell): http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaR2F.html. University of Virginia (Richard II Text, 1866 Globe Edition, edited by William George Clark and William Aldis Wright): http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MobRic2.html.