Young People’s Theatre presents the world premiere of A Million Billion Pieces. A collaboration between playwright David James Brock and composer Gareth Williams, this operatic play tells the story of Pria and Theo, two teens with a mysterious genetic disease. Juxtaposing their online interactions with a real-life encounter, this multi-media presentation is a lyrical exploration of intimacy and personal agency.
Theo and Pria’s disease has set restrictives boundaries—and a tragically ticking clock—to their lives. The science suggests that any physical contact will cause them to explode into “a million billion pieces.” Isolated from the world around them, they find solace on the web with an online persona that plays off their aspirations for a future they may never see.
Theo, fascinated by the wonders of space, imagines himself an astronaut (played by Simon Gagnon). Pria, obsessed with opera, becomes Priasoprano—a world-class diva (played by Jonelle Sills). It is through these digital masks of confidence that Pria and Theo hope to forge a human connection.
And they do, meeting in a motel room for a sex—an encounter they fear may be their last. The awkwardness of their first few moments together is endearing. Theo shows up in a comical hazmat suit while Pria drapes a plastic tarp over the bed. This hilariously unsexy, hyper-precautionary lead-in gradually gives way to a monotonous dance of procrastination. Pria is the aggressor here, openly using sexualized language to kick-start some physical contact, but Theo is more hesitant, trying to draw their conversation out.
Aldrin Bundoc and Kate Martin have plenty of stage presence, but their dynamic here doesn’t generate much warmth. They cajole and challenge each other, as the script requires, but it all feels too histrionic. Even when they seem to connect, I just couldn’t. Their interaction felt more like a vessel for the story’s thematic concerns than the desperate and brave encounter it’s meant to be.
There are some brief, insightful moments that drew me in. Pria sharing her admiration for an older sister’s sexual exploits, revealing a small yet significant gesture that made it clear which boy had been “special” to her sister. Not only is this a poignant portrait of sisterhood and sexual self-awareness, it also pays off nicely in a later scene with Theo.
I can appreciate the need to make their illness—and the ending—ambiguous, but the world in which this occurs is already hard for me to buy into. These young “sickies” are not expected to live past early adolescence and told to stay away from each other. There is something so intriguing—and deeply unsettling—about this yet it never feels properly examined. We learn that Theo’s parents were aware of his plan to have sex with Pria, knowing he’d likely die. And they are fine with this—even encouraging this risk. These are just some of the truly fascinating elements of the world these characters inhabit that are never really explored.
As an adult, I’m clearly not the intended audience for this, but I do wonder how in-tune the play is with it’s target demographic of 13 and up. The young teens in the audience around me seemed less engaged with the story itself than with the novelty of seeing characters—meant to represent their age group—swearing and engaging in sexually suggestive conversation.
Director Philip Akin’s staging makes dynamic and satisfying use of Rachel Forbes’ set and scenic elements, which cleverly play off Theo and Pria’s personalities. Gauzy draperies evoke Pria’s love of grand opera and hang elegantly over raised platforms decorated with the cosmic phenomena that fuels Theo’s imagination. It is all very elegant, but keeps our focus artfully removed from any sort of grounded reality.
I can appreciate the central metaphor of the story and the talents of all concerned, but A Million Billion Pieces never came together for me as more than it’s stylish and ambitious parts.