ATLANTA, Ga. – Mark Cabus became a well-respected actor/director/writer during his years in Nashville. Now he’s part of Atlanta’s bustling theater scene, and he’s presently playing one of Oscar Wilde’s great creations.
The Belmont University graduate is drawing laughs and praise for his portrayal of Lady Bracknell in Georgia Shakespeare’s revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s the latest in an ever-growing line of roles for the veteran actor who also trained with such prestigious programs as the National Shakespeare Conservatory and SITI Company’s Summer Theatre Workshop at Columbia University in New York City as well as the British-American Drama Academy’s “Midsummer in Oxford” at Oxford University’s Balliol College.
“I miss my friends in Nashville, but I love the opportunities I’m getting here in Atlanta,” Cabus says. “I’ve met some wonderful artists here and I’m enjoying the various projects and productions I’ve been part of since I moved here. It’s been a very good transition.”
Cabus spent most of the past two decades living and working in the Music City. He made numerous appearances with local companies – Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Mockingbird Public Theatre and his own company, Naked Stages, to name a few – and became well-known in the region for his one-man presentation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After the 2010 deaths of his parents Harold and Mary Jane within five weeks of each other in Johnson City, Tenn., he decided to spend some time in Roswell, Ga., with his brother Rand and nephew Tiger. That eventually led to seeking work in Atlanta and moving to the Buckhead district of the city.
“I needed something new,” Cabus says, “I needed to awaken a part of me and my career that if not dormant had gone into hibernation at least. And it’s opened up possibilities I hadn’t considered.”
What’s happened since he made the move? Among other gigs he’s worked onstage and off at Theatrical Outfit, most recently acting there in an acclaimed stage adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; in Theater Emory’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore; and for the last two summers in Georgia Shakespeare’s company of repertory players.
His acting work has led to other experiences behind the scenes. One example of that came after Sharon Ott, former artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre, directed him in Georgia Shakespeare’s 2011 production of The Tempest. He then assisted her in Bethesda, Md., last fall as she helmed a production of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at the Round House Theatre.
“Mark has proved to be a wonderfully versatile actor over the past two seasons,” says Producing Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Georgia Shakespeare Richard Garner. “From playing silly clowns in The Tempest and Illyria: a 12th Night Musical, to the hapless Frederick in Noises Off, to the poignant Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing and then finally to one of the grandest roles of all, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mark has created fully fleshed-out characters rich in physical, vocal and emotional detail. He has quickly fit into the ensemble of artists here and has become a great company member.”
That detailed work has allowed Cabus to believably transform himself into a Victorian woman of high social standing. “Yes, her ladyship is portrayed by a man, and Mr. Cabus’ performance is a triumph of wit and restraint,” Manning Harris writes in his Atlanta INtown Paper review of Georgia Shakespeare’s latest production. “It would be easy to overdo with excessive mannerisms, campiness, or flamboyance (and this is true for the entire play), but he doesn’t; instead he’s a delightfully stern and starched British dowager, reminding me somewhat of Dame Maggie Smith.”
(After seeing a recent performance, I happily concur with Harris’ take on Cabus’ performance and the entire production – director Sabin Epstein and his talented cast - which also includes Nashville native Anne Marie Gideon - have instilled the perfect balance of wit and restraint to keep Georgia Shakespeare’s production painfully funny amid the deliciously absurd green-and-red set surroundings conjured up by designer Angela Balogh Calin.)
Cabus is thrilled to play the grand dame in Wilde’s witty comedy of manners. “I’ve always wanted to play her since I read the play years ago,” he explains. “I never dreamed, even when men were getting the role of Bracknell (such as Brian Bedford’s portrayals at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and on Broadway with Roundabout Theatre), that I would get to play her.”
When Cabus prepared for the audition he researched how other actors – male and female – played the role. After he got the part the research became “more generalized as far as Victorian women, including how to walk, sit…and even how to take tea,” the actor notes.
Then Epstein and he discussed the character. “Sabin and I came to a decision that she’s a lot like the head of a business. She’s a CEO,” Cabus says. “And she relates differently to people according to their apparent station in life…with Cecily, she’s dismissive of her until she finds out she has money, and then she’s demurring and even deferential toward her.”
“It’s been fun working with him,” Epstein says. “He’s been very serious about it, and very open to suggestions, to input, to experimenting, to changing things around, and that’s been extremely helpful. I think we’re on a very interesting path with the character.”
Was there a key to unlocking Bracknell for Cabus? The answer lies in a work by Edgar Degas. “One thing to keep in mind when you’re playing Lady Bracknell comes from a line in the third act where she says that when she married Lord Bracknell she had no fortune of any kind but that she never dreamed of allowing that to stand in her way,” the actor says. “So she’s an ambitious woman but we have to imagine that with no fortune when she married where did she come from?
“I pictured her as some kind of performer Bracknell met.” That led him to Degas’ 1878 “Café Concert Singer” pastel on canvas. “When I saw it, I said, ‘That’s her. That’s who she was.’ She wasn’t a good singer, but she sang rather loud where everyone could clearly hear her,” Cabus says with a laugh.
And how about the well-known moment in Act I where Lady Bracknell finds out that her prospective son-in-law Jack Worthing was found as an infant in a handbag left at Victoria Station? Her line “A handbag?” has been treated as the “To be or not to be” moment in the play by many critics and audiences for years. (What’s often lost in the shuffle is Jack’s socially-motivated and humorous clarification that he was found on the “Brighton Line” – in 1895, Victoria Station had two separate but adjacent terminal stations, with the rough-and-tumble LC&D Railway on the east side and the upscale LB&SCR – better known as the Brighton Line – on the west side which went to the fashionable borough of Worthing, the destination for the man who adopted and named Jack.)
“We started off with the notion of an empty slate when she says it, and then we’ve worked on playing with different things,” Cabus says. “But it was helpful to start with that blank canvas so I wasn’t influenced by other interpretations and readings of that line.”
“The thing that seems to be important about that moment is the recognition of the incredulity and how someone registers something that’s beyond the realm of comprehension to them,” Epstein says. “And we’re looking to diffuse the idea that it’s a ‘To be or not to be’ moment, that it is a crucible. It’s just looking to find what the truth of that moment is for this particular actor in this particular situation.”
What’s it like to play a woman? “I think for the most part it’s not about gender,” he says. “I think people are motivated more by things like personal gain and their opinions than they are by (their sex). So other than wearing corsets, skirts and high heels,” Cabus laughs, “she’s much like any other character I’ve played.”
Georgia Shakespeare’s The Importance of Being Earnest continues through Aug. 3 in the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University (4484 Peachtree Rd. NE in Atlanta). For tickets or more information call (404) 504-1473 or visit www.gashakespeare.org.
*Photos by Daniel Kelly, Anna Ritch, John Hardy and Bill DeLoach Photography courtesy Mark Cabus and Georgia Shakespeare. Photo of “Café Concert Singer” courtesy Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.