The only drawback to professional storyteller Megan Wells' performance in Gods of Love is that it's only offered once a week in a Wednesday evening slot as part of the Oak Park Festival Theatre's season.
Wells scored a hit here last summer with Helen's Troy, the epic saga of the Trojan War told from the point of view of the lovely young woman whose face launched the thousand ships. Her current production in Austin Gardens promises to be another highlight of Festival's program. If you think you might like this kind of show, set aside a Wednesday evening to experience the unique talents of this gifted artist. Summer goes quickly.
This year's production is a passionate tale of erotic love yet there's nothing graphic or offensive for younger or more sensitive audience members. I think teens, especially those who may have recently studied mythology, would especially be drawn into Wells' tale.
Our storyteller begins her performance recounting a sleepless night in 1993 when she found herself staring at Gary, her fiancé, "across a cold chasm of sheets." Divorced and then 33 years old, Wells found herself once again searching for love yet filled with overwhelming panic by the challenge of making sense out of their relationship.
Thus the narrator draws us into the universal story of Psyche and Eros with a contemporary framework. As the tale unfolds, it's full of exciting conflict and plot twists. Greco-Roman myths are fast moving adventures, often with periodic visits from terrifying monsters.
There is something so irresistible about the ancient folk art of storytelling. As Wells spins her images, we become co-creators in this artistic experience. Older folks often wax nostalgic about the "golden age of radio," when listeners' imaginations were utilized so heavily. But here the passionate storyteller also incorporates acting, movement and music.
Although last summer Wells performed alone, this time she's added three masked "mythmakers" dressed in black: Rachel Kuhn, Steven Montague and Claire Shunk. They silently punctuate many scenes, providing Kabuki-like counterpoint to the plot developments. This trio portrays everything from rushing wind to cascading rivers, and even become a throne at one point.
The masks by David Knezz are awesome works of art in themselves. They vividly amplify or highlight the mood and action.
This storyteller's considerable warmth and animation heightens our sense of involvement. Even as darkness magically falls upon Austin Gardens, Wells maintains strong eye contact with all sides of her audience, making you feel as if she's engaging you personally. Her work is not strictly just telling what happened as much as it involves playing many roles and acting out the story. She takes on many different voices and attitudes in the process.
Wells creates a sense of spine-tingling realism, yet she also establishes a dream-like, ethereal mood that's perfect for such a midsummer evening's escapism. This is not the dry mythology of Bulfinch or Edith Hamilton that was required reading back in the day when I was in school.
In brief, the lovely young mortal Psyche is so popular and alluring that she arouses the wrath of Aphrodite (aka Venus) who fears her subjects will be so overwhelmed by Psyche's radiance they'll neglect her and worship the younger woman. With great vanity and insecurity, the jealous diva goddess of beauty sends her son Eros (aka Cupid), god of desire, to shoot the girl with one of his magical arrows dipped in an aphrodisiac (note the derivative of his mom's name), causing Psyche to hopelessly hook up forever with the first man she sees no matter how ugly or unsuitable he might be. But instead Eros himself falls for her and the two lovers sneak away and secretly marry.
When Aphrodite learns of their relationship, Psyche is put through a series of dangerous and frustrating tests, including a journey deep into the underworld.
The characters are fascinating. Talk about mother-in-law problems! Strictly speaking, Psyche isn't a natural born goddess, of course, but gets to Olympus by "marrying up." Mama's boy Eros seems to be a narcissistic spoiled brat undeserving of her love. Aphrodite is shrewish yet emotionally vulnerable. I can imagine the whole thing played out on screen with Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway as mother-in-law Aphrodite, and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes portraying the dynamic duo, Eros and Psyche.
Wells is an award-winning story artist, a total pro who constantly monitors both her audience and her surroundings. She adjusts to the moment; after the intermission she experienced a slight bit of trouble with a microphone. She obtained some quick technical assistance while simultaneously and seemingly effortlessly carrying us back with her on our time travel adventure to the magical days of the gods and goddesses. There was never an awkward moment or disruption.
The two-act performance of this timeless tale lasts about 90 minutes with one intermission.