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Playwright David Ives learns to adapt, and acclaim follows

Playwright David Ives sits set Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s producti'The School for Lies' directed by CST artistic director BarbarGaines adapted by

Playwright David Ives sits on the set of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of "The School for Lies," directed by CST artistic director Barbara Gaines and adapted by David Ives from Moliere's "The Misanthrope," in the Courtyard Theater December 4, 2012–January 20, 2013.

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◆ In previews; opens Wednesday and runs through Jan. 20, 2013

◆ Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

◆ Tickets: $48-$78

◆ (312) 595-5600;

Updated: January 12, 2013 6:04AM

Meet David Ives, the playwright who grew up in the shadow of South Chicago’s steel mills, attended Catholic schools, headed off to Northwestern University and the Yale Drama School, and gradually began to forge a reputation for the sparkling verbal acrobatics of both his original work and his acclaimed adaptations of (mostly) French classics.

Ives has riffed on the work of everyone from Moliere, the 17th century French social satirist, and his contemporary, Pierre Corneille, to that 19th century Austrian writer, Sacher-Masoch (whose name became the source of the term “masochism”).

It was a work by Sacher-Masoch that served as inspiration for his most recent play, “Venus in Fur,” a Tony-nominated Broadway hit now being turned into a movie by Roman Polanski. (Rumor has it the play will get its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre.) And if you need further credentials for Ives there is this: He is working on the book for a new musical by Stephen Sondheim.

Meanwhile, the tall, beanpole-thin, New York-based writer was back “home” recently, watching rehearsals of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “The School for Lies,” his shrewdly modernized adaptation of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” which opens Wednesday under the direction of Barbara Gaines. The show, about a man wholly disgusted with the hypocrisy and superficiality of society, who falls for a brainy, beautiful woman who runs a literary salon, stars Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay — two Canadian actors who work with the Stratford Shakespeare Theatre and are married in real life.

A charming, talkative, wholly unpretentious man, Ives (whose other adaptation of a French play in verse, Corneille’s romantic farce, “The Liar,” will be produced by Glencoe’s Writers Theatre, May 21-July 28, 2013) lit up when asked about what first drew him to the theater.

“It was the Blue Fairy in a Goodman Theatre production of ‘Pinocchio’ that my mother took me to see when I was 7,” said the writer, now 62. “I even got her autograph. Later, there were shows at the Drury Lane in Evergreen Park, especially [Agatha Christie’s] ‘Ten Little Indians,’ and, at a downtown theater, ‘Hostile Witness,’ starring Ray Milland.

“Then, at 17, I saw a matinee of Edward Albee’s ‘A Delicate Balance’ at the old Studebaker Theatre, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starring, and it changed everything. I was totally smitten with this moving, funny, articulate, savage, affectionate drama that played out in a living room, but encompassed such huge questions. After the show, Albee spoke to some blue-haired ladies — and me, a gawky boy. He was the first living playwright I’d ever met, and it was fantastic. And in the years since I’ve gotten to know him.”

As for Ives’ first writing effort (and he clearly delights in recalling it), “it was a play I wrote at age 9 for my Cub Scout troop. It was based on a 300-page noir crime novel from the 1930s, with gunmen and blondes, and I turned it into a 15-minute work. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, but some kid stole the script. I’m waiting for it to turn up on eBay one day.”

At Northwestern, Ives majored in English literature, minored in theater, and acted in a few plays and enjoyed it. But once at Yale he realized he didn’t have what it took to be a really good actor. By the early 1970s the playwright in him began to emerge, but it wasn’t until 1993, with a production of “All in the Timing,” a collection of his one-acts, that he had his first big success.

About his fascination with the art of adaptation, Ives observed: “Of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, 35 were adaptations of other works. I like to have a story handed to me that I can then manipulate and change. Good ideas are rare, so why not take something else and turn it around? The process became a real sideline for me, as well as an education. And beginning in the early 1990s, with New York’s ‘Encores!’ series [concert versions of rarely revived musicals], I’ve been having a great time rewriting and doctoring the books for three dozen of those shows.”

It was on one of those projects that Ives met Chicago director Gary Griffin, who invited him to do the new translation of ‘A Flea in Her Ear’ produced at Chicago Shakespeare in 2006.

Although Ives describes his French as “on the advanced intermediate level,” he notes “my English is advanced advanced.” He also has become a master of writing in rhymed verse, which he describes as “a real high-wire act.”

Ironically enough, Ives confessed he was never a big Moliere fan.

“He created many wonderful characters, but his plays are too neat and I never found his plots satisfying. What I’ve tried to do is insert what I think are the missing scenes. How did these people meet? What explains their love story?”

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