Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 28, 2023

The Barnstormers performed a staged reading of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell on Saturday, April 20. You Never Can Tell is the first play the Barnstormers ever performed; This brought a certain nostalgia to the show, as it is also the 100th anniversary of the formation of the theatre group in January 1919.

Their performance made me think about how fear is translated through live performance. We are often only engrossed in stories when that fear arises, whether this be through doubt that the main character will survive or will not achieve their dreams. Of course, this fear does not exist unless we, in some way, believe in the character’s existence. Somehow it is easy for us to maintain this belief while understanding its fiction through the immediacy of theatre. 

For movies and literature, you can put down the books or pause the film; theater is harder. You can’t hit pause on a person. Maybe you could throw a shoe at them, but that just makes you part of the performance and possibly a lawsuit. Indeed, characters in theatre, by virtue of being embodied by real people, seem more real. Consequently, their fear is more real.

This fear is partially why I’ve never counted myself as a theatre lover. Whether it’s too much empathy or naivety, I cannot help but believe them not only as real people, but also actors. And so, despite how hard I try, in each actor I find myself caught between two people — one whose feelings I cannot access and the other whose feelings overwhelm me. 

This is why I was surprised that the Barnstormers 100th anniversary live reading didn’t give me the shivers. Directed by freshman Gabriel Feuerstein-Mendik, the show is about a single mother, Mrs. Clandon (freshman Aparajita Kashyap), who visits a seaside resort with her three children, talkative Dolly (sophomore Sophia Triantis), foppish Philip (sophomore Keelin Reilly) and disdainful Gloria (senior Octavia Fitzmaurice). To the surprise of all characters, they discover their father to be a brutish man named Mr. Crampton (sophomore Ben Leach), the landlord of local dentist Mr. Valentine (sophomore Jonah Facciolli).

In a series of coincidences and misunderstandings, all come to encounter, quarrel and understand one another in a play that mixes farce with social commentary that, given the time period, ranges from mundane to confusing. I cannot attest to the time period in which the play was performed, but by today’s standards, the characters’ concerns are pedestrian, their manners are outdated and their progressive views are only progressive in the thin way of children’s television shows. In one scene, an older gentleman dejectedly remarks that his young students now mock him, refusing “to bow the knee to Socialism.” Some things never change. 

On Saturday, the show mostly got by on its comedy. Irrespective of some outdated language, the show is a riot, cleverly playing the characters off one another in unexpected ways. For instance, Mr. Valentine gets to play a suave romancer when he tries to wed Gloria, and a befuddled everyman when encountering Phillip and Gloria. Mr. Crampton gets to be both a stern patriarch to Mr. Valentine and an outraged parent when he encounters his children. Indeed, everyone is utterly shocked and awed by Phillip and Gloria, including themselves; It’s no surprise then that they generate most of the show’s comedy by uprooting societal conventions with their respective outbursts,and bubbling with gaiety as they interject their commentary into the absurdity of the proceedings.

Ultimately, the fact that the show is still funny decades later is both a testament to the dialogue and the performance of the Barnstormers cast, who bring great comic timing to the performance, even without the benefit of physical action afforded by an actual staged production and with the descriptive interruptions of the director. 

However, I imagine these interruptions also allowed me to feel some distance from the performance, along with its antiquated phrases and the lack of any commentary meaningful to the 21st century. To be honest, the only time I ever clung to my seat in discomfort was when the words “Jew” and “Injun” were used as pejoratives. Then again, the fact that I can only comfortably enjoy theatre that does not confront me with complicated emotions and uncomfortable truths, such as racism, is probably not a good thing. 

Maybe it’s just that I feel more comfortable confronting them in the comfort of my home, but the truth of theatre is that it is the only art where these things can be confronted viscerally and not just intellectually. I wonder if those who watched the play in its original incarnation felt as I do when I watch theatre. Because of this, we should let the theater continue to confront us, and more specifically let the Barnstormers do it for, well, another hundred years. 

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