It matters that the role of the king is played by a female actor in the Rude Mechanicals' production of "All's Well That Ends Well" at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, because this is a Shakespeare play in which women have a lot to say.
There are a few other examples of gender-reversed casting in this Laurel-based theater company's spirited production, so its feminist fervor comes across loud and clear. Also, in terms of the contemporary cultural vibe, it's interesting that this staging of "All's Well That Ends Well" coincides with an all-female cast in a production of "As You Like It" that Center Stage is doing at Towson University while its Baltimore theater undergoes renovation.
Under director Liana Olear, the Rude Mechanicals' production successfully raises gender-related issues. It also has a lot of fun with the play's sillier qualities and characters.
Although this staging does not completely tap into this play's more somber elements, "All's Well That Ends Well" admittedly is a difficult play in terms of trying to strike the right balance between its dueling emotions. For that matter, some of the play's plot twists are not exactly convincing as it hurtles toward the happy ending that is announced in the title.
At the heart of Shakespeare's play is a young woman, Helena, whose physician father recently died. He left her some healing potions, which will come in handy. That's because the King of France is ill, and Helena's reward for healing his illness will be the right to select the husband of her choice.
This production is vigorously brought to life by Grace Baker's confident performance as Helena. Some of the best scenes involve Helena conversing with the King, whose portrayal by Jaki Demarest has a regal authority that pushes aside any gender-related doubts one might have about the casting.
Helena, who is of relatively low social status, decides to marry Bertram, who is the Count of Rossillion. He's portrayed by Charlie Green as a meek fellow who has so little interest in marrying Helena that he runs off to fight a war in Italy.
Poor Helena is left to lament: "There is no loving, none, if Bertram be away." Most of the play is then devoted to her scheming to have her way and marry the unwilling Bertram.
One of the numerous complications involves the Countess of Rossillion. She's the mother of Bertram, and she's also watching over the orphaned Helena. Although Helena rationalizes that she would not be marrying a blood brother, it's nonetheless a messy scenario. The Countess is portrayed with maternal warmth by Lorraine Bouchard.
Others in the cast include Parolles, a follower of Bertram (Ray Wallis); a steward, Rinaldo (Trevor Jones); a clown, Lavatch (Joshua Engel); the Widow Capilet of Florence (Moira Parham); the widow's daughter, Diana (Diana Dzikiewicz); a nobleman, Lafew (Sam David); and the Ladies Dumaine (Lynda Clark and Spencer Nelson).
When all is said and done in this fast-moving production, you have no doubt that Helena will get what Helena wants.
The Rude Mechanicals' production of "All's Well That Ends Well" runs through Jan. 23 at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors, students and military. Go to rudemechanicals.comhttp://www.rudemechanicals.com.