Lodi native J. Lee Vocque, who is no stranger to theater, is embracing the thrilling side of film noir with his new play, “Deathtrap.” This time, though, he’s taking a cast made up of several Lodi actors — including Rob Chase and Jeanine Michael — to the perform at the Linden Community Theater.
Though it is well known for its film version, “Deathtrap” in Linden will be unlike the production you’re used to, according to Vocque. Here, the director from Lodi talks about the show and getting freaked out in the theater.
Tell me about this performance. Where did it come from, and how is it happening in Linden with Lodi people?
The show is “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin, who also wrote “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Stepford Wives.”
I was talking with the artistic committee (in Linden), who had another show they were looking at. It was one of those things.
“Deathtrap” doesn’t get done as much as it should. I feel like it’s such a solid show. It is set in ’79. It’s got a familiarity to it; when it comes down to it, (that familiarity) adds to the creepiness of the thriller.
Can you tell me a little about the “Deathtrap” plot, without giving anything away?
The story is about a man by the name Sidney Bruhl, played by Lodi resident Rob Chase. About 18 years ago, he had a huge hit on Broadway. It was the be all, end all, greatest thriller on Broadway.
But since then, he hasn’t had another success. The audiences just aren’t coming ... all of this is making him kind of a desperate man.
Out of nowhere, a former student sends him a play in the mail that is perfection. It’s exactly what he’s been looking for. He comes up with the idea: “What if I just take it and put it under my own name? Unfortunately, I might have to get rid of the young man who wrote it,” he thinks.
He has a loving wife who is very supportive. She’s been keeping him financially afloat, which adds to his desperation.
You, who grew up in Lodi, created this cast made up of several Lodi residents. Why did you choose Linden?
With live theater, you need to have a variety of things for people to choose (and venues to choose from). Enter Community Theater of Linden, which was put together a couple of years ago. I’m just recently getting involved with them myself. They’re going to start more shows there. I don’t feel you get enough thrillers on the live stage.
How long have you been directing?
Almost 20 years. I started directing in high school. The second I was done with high school, I just kept going.
You grew up in Lodi and now live in North Stockton. What do you enjoy about Lodi?
I love the Downtown Lodi area. I drive into Lodi (to go to the movies) ... the Lodi movie theater is better.
I went to Bear Creek High School and grew up way out in the farmlands. I was Bear Creek’s first student director.
Where else have you done theater work?
I’m thankful. I’ve been very lucky. A couple years back, I did “Odd Couple” at Stockton Civic Theater. That was amazing. I did Kiley’s (in Lodi), stuff in Sacramento and the Bay Area. I’ve done shows in Roseville or San Jose. If a show is good enough, I will drive far.
With “Deathtrap” being a thriller, would you put a rating on the show?
I would rate it as an R. There is a little bit of language, and it’s centering around plotting a murder. You will see the murder on stage. If that doesn’t bother you as a parents, then give it a try. If I was a parent, I would not bring anyone younger than 12 to see the show. Anyone under 17 should have adult supervision.
You’re going to hear a gunshot ... I did my best to portray film noir.
How do you achieve that classic effect on stage?
Well, my lighting designer helped with the colors as far as lighting design. She just graduated high school. I like to give opportunity to someone who’s never done this before. She hadn’t seen film noir, so I gave her homework. She (went with) a very sepia tone for the show.
Everything I’m using is pulled from classic film noir: “Maltese Falcon,” “Chinatown,” “Psycho.”
There is a film version from the ’80s that is a brilliant film, but don’t come to the theater expecting to see that film.
What do you want to portray to your audience?
I want them to walk in and get something familiar, but still get to be surprised. I want to scare you ...
As a director, you’re consumed by a play’s subject for weeks leading up to the performance. With “Deathtrap” being a thriller, have you freaked yourself out or experienced anything strange?
Just last night, as I was leaving the theater around 10:30, I’m going through the building to lock up. I know what an empty theater feels like. I know what it sounds like. But I did just watch an entire rehearsal of this thriller.
All of a sudden, before I punch in my code to leave, I hear this sound. It’s a creaking that sounds like someone is walking through the theater. There is one light that’s left on the stage at all times, called the ghost light — again, ominous. I come out (to) the dim ghost light and I say what you here in every horror movie, the dumbest thing to say: “Hello?” As if the killer is going to go, “Oh, hello.”
I hear what sounds like creaking and walking up on the catwalk. It’s a brand new building; there’s no ghost story out here. But I’m like, “OK, what is that?” I turn on the light and there’s nothing up there. I turn it off, start to leave and I hear it again. Part of me wants to go, but I know logically, it’s the metal of the lights (expanding and crackling). The other part of me is telling myself it’s someone with an ax.
Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at email@example.com.