The evocative art of storytelling, once one of mankind's reliable pleasures, has fallen on hard times. Campfires have either been banned in most jurisdictions or replaced by hibachis, which don't quite set the proper mood. Nowadays, when people gather 'round to hear a tale or two, the television set--or maybe the water cooler--is the meeting place. Something's missing, and at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Jay O'Callahan is showing us just what.

A stringbean of a man, balding, with a grizzled beard, a rugby shirt and jeans that bunch around his ankles, O'Callahan tells tales for a living, tales he has fashioned from his imagination or his travels. He's all alone on a stage, relying on bits of mime, a dozen or so voices and his ability to change character as easily as if he were changing hats. I suppose any number of impersonators can boast as much. O'Callahan, however, has one other gift, and it's what accounts for the liveliness of his stories about lusty seafarers, gigantic whales, mean old druids and poets bursting at the heart.

He himself is constantly surprised by the course of events he's relating. You'll notice that surprise in the swallow-like dart of his hands, in the hush that abruptly overtakes his voice, in the rapid widening of his eyes behind a pair of Coke-bottle lenses. Like the magician who whips away a silk kerchief to reveal a rabbit in the soup tureen, O'Callahan relishes the wondrous twists and turns of a good narrative. The land of lo and behold is his true turf.

The current two-hour program--the first of three he will be presenting at the Round House through July 8--is called "An Evening of the Sea" and concentrates on the lure of the briny and the pluck of those creatures who inhabit its edges. "The Barber of New London" is a Melvillesque account of an aging whaler's last hurrah. "The Magic Mortar" explains how the sea came to be so salty. In "The Cliffs of Culdurrah" (my favorite) a poet and a lyre player are captured by a monstrous druid, but magically escape his clutches by dashing over a rainbow. And a 14-year-old girl in Nova Scotia learns about life and death as she toils away at her first job in "The Herring Shed."

Occasionally, O'Callahan is a bit too garrulous for his own good and allows his tales to extend beyond their natural limits. But when he is on target, which is three-quarters of the time, he performs with sketchbook economy, indicating, for example, the howling wind with nothing more than a low whistle, the sweep of his bony hands and an expression of pure marvel.

"An Evening of the Sea" continues until July 18; from July 22 through Aug. 1, he'll be telling stories keyed to the theme of "Island Enchantment"; then, Aug. 5-8, the program is "Summer Madness." The Massachusetts-born bard is billed as a storyteller for adults, which means only that he is too sophisticated for the very young. Others will find themselves cocking an increasingly interested ear.