As previously documented, my long-standing relationship with Resident Evil (or Biohazard, to give its original Japanese title) has been somewhat tortured of late. Therefore, the prospect of going to see a stage adaptation of the franchise (having already spun-off into films, books, comics, and theme park interactive experiences) was met more with caution than excitement, but still a morbid curiosity. What form would it take? How would it work? Would it be scary? Embarrassing? Hilarious? Awful? Given that it tied in nicely with a trip to Tokyo and I would be accompanied by a friend with a similar take on all things Resident Evil, how could I not go?
Performed at Roppongi’s swish, new EX Theater, with a short run in late October/early November, Biohazard The Stage (a glorious linguistic misfire of a name) is set sometime between the events of RE5 and RE6, in which a virus outbreak turns the staff and faculty of an Australian university into zombies and fan “favourites” Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Piers Nivans have to contain it. The plot devised by Capcom is not based on any one game, but follows the same predictable narrative beats that would make it fit neatly amongst the official chapters. As such, it won’t surprise anyone who has played any of the games (and God help you if you see this without any prior experience), or probably anyone who has encountered a work of fiction for that matter. Will the scientists with the wonky tie harbour a dark secret? Will the bleach blonde guy in the red shirt turn out to be a bit of a bad’un? Will the mysterious stranger with the leather jacket hold the key to everything?
Perhaps this is more a ‘greatest hits’ package, assembling these well-worn elements (and fairly cohesively) as a nod to the fans. And there is certainly fan service on offer, notably flashbacks to RE0 and RE1, as well as appearances from those infamous door animations, a rocket launcher and even a First Aid Spray (no typewriters or item chests that I can recall though). These winky references are to be expected, and as cringe-inducing as they may be, they made me smile, in a chucklesome “oh, you went there, didn’t you” kind of way. The same can be said of the staging, a large shifting multi-tiered set onto which are projected different foregrounds and backdrops to change location. And yet, these projections are low-resolution and/or created with crummy CG, unintentionally mimicking the basic polygon models and basic textures of the original game. It’s a shame though that the key thing lost in its translation to the stage is the horror. What little blood and gore and gruesomeness there is in Biohazard The Stage is largely confined to pre-recorded video, nothing especially scary happens, and the zombies are disappointingly unthreatening. It doesn’t help that the action gets repetitive quickly, with scene after scene of our heroes darting into a new location, popping some caps, fisting some cuffs (in a reminder to just how much the games have been influenced by the films, there is an awful lot of kicking and hand-to-hand combat), and making their way to point B. But at least the actors are no slouches in that department, maintaining an impressive energy level throughout.
In fact, for all the inherent silliness, the cast are completely committed to the premise, taking everything very seriously, as if a stage adaptation of a video game franchise is just as legitimate as Pinter or Beckett, or at the very least a jukebox musical. And why not? That a stage version of Phoenix Wright was playing down the road suggests this wasn’t as novel a proposition as it first appeared. Though the principals are mostly culled from TV dramas and idol groups, Sonny Chiba (best known in the West for the Street Fighter – not that one – movies, and Kill Bill) lends the production a bit of emotional heft and gravitas, though the best character is the impossibly-monikered Posh Brown, a jittery security guard whose comic relief antics, while played broad, break the po-faced earnestness elsewhere. During the interval, my friend and I joked that what it really needed was a musical number, and lo and behold, the second half commences with a big zombie scuffle choreographed to a hi-NRG dance-pop tune. There are some other fun stage effects and ideas too – the backstory for the Umbrella corporation features actual umbrellas twirling on stage, text messages are projected onto the backdrop, a genetic mutation happens with the aid of simple but effective costume trickery.
So, for better and for worse, Biohazard The Stage is a faithful adaptation of the Resident Evil games as they currently exist. It is closer to the games than the live-action films in execution, and while it plays like one long cut-scene, it’s at least more interesting than the straight-to-DVD CG offerings. Faint praise, maybe, and there’s certainly nothing there for anyone but the most dedicated fans, but despite feeling burned out by all things bio-weaponry, it was not the abomination it could have been.
A DVD release is due in January with English subtitles, but I imagine much would be lost removed from the live setting (where at least there is something fascinating about experiencing it in the flesh with an audience). Viewed through a screen, I can see it becoming especially tedious. One for only the most hardcore/foolish (delete where applicable) Resident Evil enthusiast.