Gimme the Gun, I've Got Something to Say | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Gimme the Gun, I've Got Something to Say 

Defiant Theatre family and friends say goodbye in characteristic style.

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Sunday night's wake for Defiant Theatre had all the trappings. The guests wore black, the bar was open, and the buffet was pot luck. There were tears and toasts. There was also quite a bit of gunfire. Multiple stage pistols loaded with blanks were on hand, and every time a company member wanted to make a toast, he or she just fired a shot in the air to get the room's attention.

Founded in 1993 by a group of students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Defiant produced plays designed (per their mission statement) "to subvert the social, moral, and aesthetic expectations of mainstream artistic expression." Most of them were loaded with violence, grotesque imagery, and sex.

Specializing in sprawling gothic adaptations of work by writers like Stephen King, Bram Stoker, and Anthony Burgess, the peripatetic company crammed large-scale productions into storefront spaces. Swashbuckling fight choreography was a house specialty, of which the company's Action Movie parodies were particularly chewy showcases. And as the years went on Defiant casts ballooned to barely manageable numbers. This summer's The Pyrates was a three-hour, three-act epic with a cast of 31--not to mention two choreographers, one "aerial choreographer," video projections, and a puppet.

Although critical reaction to their work was often mixed, their bombastic and gory low-budget stagings of work like Albert Camus' Caligula and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, became yardsticks for the fuck-you theater of the 90s, when companies like the Factory secured their potty-mouthed reps with spoofs like White Trash Wedding and a Funeral and the Hypocrites were starting to mount wild-eyed shows like Marat/Sade.

But eventually Defiant members started drifting away. In 1998 Nick Offerman trekked to LA to pursue TV and film work. (His credits include George Lopez, Deadwood, 24, and marrying Will & Grace's Megan Mullally.) In the last 12 months eight more longtime members have moved. Former artistic director Jim Slonina left for Belgium to work with Franco Dragone, a former Cirque de Soleil director, on a new Vegas-bound spectacle slated to open in 2005. Actress Kati Brazda went to New York with the Victory Gardens production of Joanna Glass's Trying, which opened off-Broadway in October. Jeff-nominated actors Christopher and Barb Thometz, now the parents of two children, moved to Idaho.

According to company member Linda Gillum, who dressed for the wake as a Kennedy widow in a black suit and tasteful pillbox hat, the company just became too much to manage for the people that were left.

"We had a really loyal following, but we never had our own space," she says. "It was always a lot of work, but with fewer people, we were worried about running out of steam." They decided to close up shop with this fall's production of A Clockwork Orange, which ran through mid-October at Gallery 37's Storefront Theater.

Director Christopher Johnson, Defiant's founding father, saw an uncanny parallel between the arc of the company and Anthony Burgess's story of a London lad whose extreme streak of violence and perversion eventually runs its course. "Chris showed up one night after reading a bit of the book and said, 'This is it. We should go out on this,'" Gillum says. "And so after some debate we voted and that was that."

Like the company's body of work, their farewell party was irreverent, noisy, overcrowded, and a really good time. Held at the Strawdog Theatre space at Broadway and Grace, the affair was DJ'd by Gregor Mortis, a member of both Defiant and Strawdog. The first mourners showed up around 8 PM. Mortis ushered the last stragglers out the door at 5 in the morning. The stage was used as a dance floor, and smokers accustomed to having to slip out into the cold for a hit took full advantage of the smoke-friendly surroundings and puffed nonstop. By midnight, the kind of haze that usually hangs over a nightclub floor permeated the entire space.

There was a montage of video clips from past productions that included a never-aired music video the company made with the Smoking Popes at Metro in 2001. (Lead singer Josh Caterer's wife, Stephanie, appeared in several Defiant shows.) Offerman, whose career kept him away, contributed a profane eulogy that was given a dramatic reading by several company members. ("You can all probably still smell my urine," he wrote of the Strawdog space.)

But the most articulate tribute came from a 17-year-old New Trier senior. It was close to midnight on a school night and most of her audience was drunk, but Rebecca Rubenstein wasn't fazed. She's been hanging around the company for the last seven years, ever since she responded to an audition notice in the Reader and got cast in Defiant's 1997 production of The Skriker, a baroque mask-and-puppet play. The role--that of a soul-searching youngster who eventually slits her wrists--was given to her the day before her tenth birthday.

"That offer remains, to this day, the best present I have ever received," said Rubenstein, who went on to work with Chicago Dramatists, Rivendell, and Factory, among others. "I have never felt so loved and accepted by people who are not members of my immediate family. My castmates could have treated me like a ten-year-old. They could have assumed I was stupid and unknowing. But they didn't. Instead, I was treated like one of them--an adult." She's attended almost every benefit and play Defiant has produced since then--she's seen Action Movie: The Play--The Director's Cut seven times. Her father, Eric Rubenstein, served on the Defiant board for the last four years, and her mother, Chaya, baked for the company during tech weeks.

"I can think of no better teachers than the members of and the people who have worked with Defiant," she announced to the crowd, who were watching her like proud, if tipsy, parents. "My learning didn't begin at school, but rather on stage. I witnessed relentless efforts at producing gritty original drama, despite budget setbacks and some sour criticism. I witnessed artists who refused to censor themselves for the sake of the popular vote, who refused to perform traditional pieces for the masses or tone down risque plays. . . . I was taught that art is not about making millions of dollars, but rather about professing your love for something and sharing it with others."

Rubenstein, who was at the party with her parents, just got accepted early admission at Sarah Lawrence. She wants to keep doing theater but plans to study writing, because "you don't need a degree to act." After her toast she said that one of the most valuable lessons of being a Defiant groupie for seven years was getting to watch the day-to-day lives of artists up close.

"I've gotten a lot of perspective on people in low-wage jobs," she said. "A lot of people have three roommates and no money and are really happy."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Elizabeth Laidlaw, Andrew Rothenberg.

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