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On Stage: a date with Destiny

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Nine months ago David Catlin, a founding member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company, was working on a play based on the adventures of 60s spy fatale Modesty Blaise. His last adaptation for Lookingglass had been a reverential take on Dostoyevsky's dark novel The Idiot, and he was looking to do something a little more lighthearted.

Modesty Blaise fit the bill. The creation of British writer and cartoonist Peter O'Donnell, Modesty came to life in 1963 as a tongue-in-cheek comic strip running in the London newspaper the Evening Standard. With her leather cat suit, big hair, heels, and carefully manicured nails, Blaise could have passed for one of the disposable women in James Bond's life--one of those impossibly beautiful bombshells who end up dead halfway through the picture, or one of those murderous supermodel spies who's sent to kill 007 only to wind up falling for him. But Modesty was more Emma Peel than Pussy Galore--cool, chic, unflappable: the perfect mod Brit, both sexy and a force for good in the cold war.

There was a 1966 movie, directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by O'Donnell, that sank like a rock. Judith Crist wrote that the film "demonstrated that Joseph Losey is completely without a sense of humor when dealing with comedy." O'Donnell also wrote a pulp novel to accompany the release, and the book oddly enough proved more popular than the moviey. The novel in turn spawned a series of sequels, each one as hip, sexy, and ironic as O'Donnell's original strip.

All Lookingglass had to do was get the stage rights, not a particularly complicated task for a company that had over the years snagged permission to put on Joe Orton's unfinished screenplay for the Beatles, Up Against It, or more recently the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Trees. Lookingglass didn't expect landing Modesty Blaise to be much harder, and Catlin began work on the script.

Instead of adapting a single story line from the series, he decided to create his own adventure: the whacked-out story of a supervillain named Uriah Klench who's bent, naturally, on destroying the world. "The idea was that Klench loses his wife in a bizarre surfing accident," Catlin says. "He seeks retribution against the sun and all sun worshipers, so he steals an atomic warhead, fills it with chlorine atoms and chlorofluorocarbons, and launches it into the atmosphere to tear a hole in the ozone layer."

The writing progressed smoothly. "We used to meet every week and read the new pages. People would make suggestions, and I would incorporate the best ones in the next draft."

But Catlin wasn't having much luck pinning down the rights. He called O'Donnell in Brighton, England, where the writer had retired. But O'Donnell no longer controlled the stage rights to Modesty Blaise: they had been purchased by Miramax several years before. "It turns out Quentin Tarantino was a big fan of the Modesty Blaise series," Catlin says. "The Samuel Jackson character in Pulp Fiction is an homage to [Modesty Blaise villain] Reverend Crisp, a Bible-quoting assassin. And John Travolta's character is murdered on the toilet reading a copy of Modesty Blaise."

Through O'Donnell, Catlin began negotiating with Miramax. "We crossed our fingers hoping we could use the character." He also began rewriting the script, transforming it into a broader homage to the whole 60s cold war/cool spy genre.

A month ago, as Catlin and his cast were about to begin rehearsals, he gave up on Miramax and replaced Modesty Blaise with a chic spy of his own creation, Destiny Deign, giving her a different back story--she's a talented female playboy with a taste for wealthy older men who gets drawn into spy work against her will. Her gawky sidekick, Malachy Chance, makes even Modesty's rough-hewn second, Willy Garvin, look like John Steed. Together they battle the evil Klench.

Sadly, Catlin had no Destiny Deign to help him blast through Miramax's red tape. "Had we another six months to negotiate, I think we could have made it happen," he says. "I had some great phone calls with Peter O'Donnell. I'm sad our friendship and business relationship will never progress beyond that."

Previews for Catlin's play, Her Name Was Danger, are tonight and tomorrow at 7:30; tickets are $15. Sunday's opening at 6 includes a postperformance party; tickets are $50. The show runs through January 2. For more information, call 312-335-1650 or see the theater listings in Section Two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostani.

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