Connor Griffin, left, plays King Richard and Dylan Cotter is Richmond in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of “Richard III.”

Oh, it’s a bloody hell on the Arizona Repertory Theatre stage.

The company of University of Arizona students is staging Shakespeare’s “Richard III” with a demon’s fervor.

Everything about the production is gorgeously dark. The lighting by Tori Mays punctuated the action and evoked a sense of foreboding. The set by Jason Jamerson was kind of brilliant — a series of wooden planks rose over a pit of skeletons. As beheadings piled up, skulls were jammed onto sharpened stakes. Some of Elizabeth Eaton’s costumes were elegant, others rough; they spoke to the characters and their standings in society.

Of course, all would be for naught if the Brent Gibbs-directed production didn’t ignite.

And this play about a king who murdered and manipulated and lied his way to the crown ignited at the March 13 opening, especially in the second act. That first act is mostly exposition, and many of the actors tended to tell the story rather than live it. But the connections were deep in the second act, and the actors sank solidly into the characters.

However, Connor McKinley Griffin, who played Richard, never wavered. From the moment he said “Now is the winter of our discontent,” the play’s opening lines, to Richard’s last, “A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse,” Griffin was spellbinding.

With a limp and a hunch on his back, he stalked the stage like an animal on the hunt. His Richard relishes how evil he is, can’t wait for the next awful thing he can do to another human, whether it’s seducing a widow while her husband’s still-warm corpse is at her feet (Richard killed him, of course), or having his young nephews killed because they threaten his crown. There was a clarity of intent throughout Griffin’s stunning performance.

All stepped up and gave vivid life to their characters in the second act. Especially strong were Kelly Hajek as Queen Elizabeth, Liam Thibeault as the Duke of Buckingham and Dylan Cotter as Richmond, the lucky guy who gets to drive a sword through the satanic Richard.

Gibbs’ direction was rich with pace and detail, which made watching a play about a really awful human being an engrossing experience.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter: @kallenStar