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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

Stage Scene
Illusions within illusions

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Cathy Foy Mahi has the title role/roles in "Victor/ Victoria," premiering tonight at Diamond Head Theatre. "It's really taken me to different realms, different frontiers," she says about the role of a woman who poses as a man who is a female impersonator.

• 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (repeats at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays; through June 3)
• Diamond Head Theatre, 520 Makapu'u Ave.
• $10-$40 ($5 discount for students, seniors and military for $20 and $30 seats only)
• 734-0274

Thought being a woman was hard?

Try being a woman pretending to be a man impersonating a woman.

Talk about identity crisis.

That's the challenge for Cathy Foy Mahi, who plays Victoria Grant in Diamond Head Theatre's latest stage production, "Victor/Victoria."

"It's really taken me to different realms, different frontiers," she said with a hearty laugh, adding that this was one of her most provocative roles.

It's not often an actress gets this opportunity. And the transformation isn't as easy as donning a sequin dress, feather boa and fake eyelashes.

"The important thing is to create the illusion that I am a female impersonator," said Mahi, who did a lot of her research at local drag shows, watching the entertainers put on makeup, select outfits, walk and dance. "Not to be a woman trying to look like a man. It goes beyond that."

The story follows Victoria, an out-of-work soprano, who is persuaded to perform as a female impersonator in depression-era Paris. The musical, popularized by Julie Andrews' Tony-nominated performance on Broadway and in the movie version, is a comedy of errors of sorts. As Victoria becomes the toast of the Paris nightclub circuit, she falls in love with a handsome Chicago club owner, who finds himself attracted to the drag performer.

This is the dilemma: A woman pretending to be a man falls in love with a man who doesn't know she's a woman.

"It's wonderfully fun and entertaining," Mahi declared.

But not always easy to pull off.

To prepare for the role, Mahi not only studied videos of the movie and musical — and cut her long locks — but she had to figure out what makes a man different from a woman.

"All your mannerisms have to change," she said.

She pressed her husband and male friends for input. Even something as seemingly simple as gesturing someone to go ahead of you is done differently by men. And she never knew there was a formula to correctly putting on a tuxedo.

"Men do things one way, women another," she said. "And that's fine. That's what makes the world go 'round."

But observing the mannerisms and ever-so-slight differences between people is not new to Mahi, who has participated for the past two years in the Society of Professional Journalists' annual fund-raiser, "The Gridiron Show," a musical parody of news events and personalities.

Last year she had the daunting task of impersonating City Councilwoman Rene Mansho.

"I absolutely love doing (those shows)...," she raved. "You have to take great care in observing that person and see how they speak, gesture with their arms."

And Mahi's knack for that is why director John Rampage thought of her for the part.

"She's perfect for this role," said Rampage, also the artistic director at DHT. "It's hard to step into the shoes of Julie Andrews in a role that was structured for her strengths and talents. So finding the right combination of talents for a part like Victoria can be very daunting."

Making the role her own has been another challenge for Mahi, who was concerned about imitating Andrews instead of becoming Victor.

"The only way I could really do the role is to be very honest and just present it straight from the heart," she said.

And with her prolific background — from being Miss Hawai'i to performing in New York — Mahi could draw from her personal experience to enhance her performance.

"I'm really happy making a living doing what I love," she said. "But there were many times in my life when I didn't know where the next job was coming from ... I remember those times when I think about this particular character. We all remember the days where we only had instant ramen and bagels. And that was breakfast, lunch and dinner."

But more than identifying with the character's desperate search for work, Mahi relates to her drive and motivation.

Victoria's "very passionate about the things she does," she said. "And when she decides to become a female impersonator, she commits herself completely to the role."

Something Mahi knows a little something about.