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OC LIVE : Quiet on the Set : Silent Theater Troupe Reaches Across Ages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A brilliant sunset or a failed love affair can send a poet to his note pad or a painter to his canvas. But how many artists have found their muse in an earthquake?

*

Keith Berger and Sharon Diskin did.

The husband and wife from Los Angeles--who perform as the Chameleons--have spent 10 years translating all sorts of experiences into silent theater, a blend of mime, illusion, comedy and drama. And they say they’ve seen it touch all sorts of people, from grade-school kids to grandparents.

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The Chameleons perform Saturday night at 8 at the McKinney Theatre in Mission Viejo.

Until a couple of years ago, they were known as Berger and Diskin (a name they still use when they are booked into schools through the Los Angeles Music Center’s education division). But they say they prefer the name of a lizard that changes its colors, because they think it reflects the changing moods and content that characterize their work.

“Our show is so eclectic,” says Diskin, “that it’s hard to put a finger on who we are.” In their “Bedtime” sketch, a husband is trying to fall asleep amid a symphony of slamming drawers, schlurping lotion bottles and ringing telephones.

His wife is going through her nightly beauty ritual, chatting on the phone, consuming a cream pie and flipping magazine pages. For good measure, she is an obsessive-compulsive type, constantly tightening and smoothing the covers, even while her husband is under them.

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At which point, a major earthquake strikes.

“People get hysterical over this one,” Diskin says. “We can just feel them identifying with each moment.”

The “Umbrellas” sketch is more subtle. Set on a train platform, it attempts to capture the brief, silent romance that blooms when a man and a woman are literally blown together by the wind. The illusion that Berger and Diskin create can be so complete, down to the appearance of clothing moving in a stiff breeze, that audiences often are surprised to learn they don’t use a wind machine in the piece.

“The Stalker” is equally theatrical but darker in nature, Berger says.

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It was inspired by conversations with women who said they feel threatened while in public alone; Berger and Diskin describe it as a “psychological thriller.” Parents occasionally are concerned by the effect the piece may have on young children, but the artists say that, by and large, kids love it.

“There’s a lot of intrigue, but the intensity isn’t gratuitous,” Berger says. “It’s nothing compared to what you see on prime-time TV.”

Besides, he adds, “kids are human beings, and I think they recognize truth and reality and honesty.”

Indeed, children are such an important part of the Chameleons’ audience that the duo’s first video was targeted to children (it’s a 30-minute tape of instruction in the basics of mime and physical comedy). And at one point in their show, Berger invites one or two children on stage to help him out.

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How are they able to make their work operate on so many levels? By creating characters that are widely accessible, Diskin replies.

“Character is of primary importance in our work. In every piece we develop, we try to maintain a degree of believability, a level of truth that I don’t think you find in a lot of physical theater.

“We’re more theatrical than clownish. But there’s a lot of laughter too.”

* Who: The Chameleons.

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* When: Saturday at 8 p.m.

* Where: McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo.

* Whereabouts: From the Santa Ana (5) Freeway, exit at Avery Parkway and head east. Turn left onto Marguerite Parkway and right into the campus. Then turn left into the second driveway to reach the McKinney Theatre parking lot.

* Wherewithal: $17 ($15 for children, students and ages 55 and up). Parking is free.

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* Where to call: (714) 582-4656.


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