Bluefinger rides a troubled wave of rock n’ roll excess

If you love the music of Dutch rocker Herman Brood, you’ll likely appreciate Bluefinger.

If not, Catastrophic Theatre’s current world premiere probably won’t appeal.

Jason Nodler, Catastrophic’s artistic director, has built his new work around the life and music of Brood and on American rocker Black Francis’ Bluefinger,a concept album created in tribute to Brood.

Brood was the Netherlands’ most famous rock star, though little known outside his homeland. He was also as notorious for his drug addiction as for his music. When his body began to fail after years of shooting speed daily, and when the dope no longer made any impact, Brood in 2001 became the stuff of myth by hurling himself off the roof of an Amsterdam Hilton.

In Speeding Motorcycle, Nodler’s previous premiere based on the music and concepts of a cult figure (in that case, Daniel Johnston), prior knowledge and appreciation of the subject did not seem a prerequisite. Bluefinger is a different matter, partly because of the more off-putting personality at its center, partly because of the different approach in assembling the show.

Bluefinger really is two things: a rock concert and a biographical play. The songs, whether from Brood’s repertoire or Francis’ album, haven’t been transformed into theater, nor incorporated into the script. Though they alternate with the scenes, they exist separately — sung either byMichael Haaga (as Black Francis), in oblique reflection on Brood, or by Matt Kelly (as Brood) in his performance sequences, all backed by two rock bands on upstage platforms.

The narrative of Brood’s life is carefully researched and painstakingly detailed. Apart from an opening scene of an interviewer speaking with Brood’s wife and friends after his suicide, and a few brief flashbacks to Brood’s childhood, the story unfolds chronologically. The show follows Brood from his early work in seedy clubs, through a period of huge popularity in the Netherlands and near-stardom in the U.S., which is derailed when he collapses during a make-or-break gig, to his later interest in painting.

The interview scene, with friends revealing contradictory accounts, is one of the more interesting. But that kind of probing, “what made the guy tick?” approach is used rarely. Brood just is what he is. Apart from Brood and his manager, Koos Van Dijk, no one else is developed very thoroughly.
Nodler’s direction is most arresting when he breaks out of the documentary approach to apply a more fantastical treatment – as in an expressionistic sequence that fast-forwards the courtship and wedding of Brood and wife Xandra, capped by a baby doll dropping into her arms. A strangely endearing scene of Brood interviewing to paint the house of a cartoonish old man, is unlike anything else in the show and suggests the quirky charm that elevated Speeding Motorcycle and is otherwise lacking in this work.

The production’s central strength is Kelly’s absolutely authentic portrayal of Brood. He’s wild, wired, relentlessly incorrigible. He deteriorates believably and alarmingly. He doesn’t make Brood’s self-destruction attractive, but he does give it a strangely heroic honesty and inevitability.
Troy Schulze makes palpable the frustration and helplessness of Koos, Brood’s reluctant enabler.

Mikelle Johnson lends intense conviction to her brief scenes, whether as Brood’s forgiving wife or that goofy, vaudeville-sketch Dutchman. Kyle Sturdivant brings an off-handed grace to multiple roles, notably the sympathetic friend bidding a resigned farewell.
Essentially, Bluefinger is another jukebox show – but a far edgier brand than the current commercial norm.