HAVE YOU grown accustomed to Cirque du Soleil spectaculars that seem less like a circus and more like a surreal aerial ballet or Asian action movie fantasy? You know - shows that come saddled with some convoluted, mystical plotline (at least in the program book) about the quest for truth, beauty and humanity?

Or maybe you've come to think of Cirque for its permanently installed mega-productions in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., where the tens of millions of dollars spent on high-tech stage machinery often dwarfs the mere mortal performers.

If so, the most intimate and circuslike of Cirque shows, newly landed in Philadelphia and called "Kooza," will really surprise you, thanks to a creator named David Shiner who's steeped in traditional, one-ring circus arts.

"I wanted a more traditional show, a show created around the artists, not on all the stuff around them," explained the writer/director recently. "I wanted to take the high-tech out of it, to really get back to the basics."

The costumes are still magnificent, sometimes offbeat and occasionally a bit unsettling (unless a Broadway-style chorus line of skeletons and a carpet of dancing rats is your idea of dreamy).

The world-conscious music coming from the traditional, circus-styled bandstand also is true to the Cirque performance-art school. This time, the score mixes a rock core with the spicy rhythms of Latin America and India, and featuring a singer Shiner first heard in Mumbai.

But listen closely. Some of the lyrics are in English this time, not that otherworldly Cirque-gibberish!

Clowns also have more to say in this one show, in recognizable speech, than this fan has seen collectively in seven or eight Cirque shows. "We're playing in the U.S., so why not talk in English?" said Shiner.

Another difference this time, the plotline can be boiled down to a one-line essence: Innocent, kite-flying fella waves a magic wand over a box; out pops a jester and we're off to the circus - a particularly terrific circus - where acrobats and clowns rule the roost. (But no chickens, or elephants, or tigers.)

By the way, "Kooza" comes from the Sanskrit word kaza which means both "box" and "treasure."

Born in the U.S.A.

David Shiner is U.S.-born - a rarity among the high creative ranks for the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil enterprise - and is best known in the States for his clowning in the film "Lorenzo's Oil," his guiding role as the original Cat in the Hat in the Broadway musical "Seussical" and especially for the two-man, all-mimed show with Bill Irwin, "Fool Moon," "that we played for three engagements on Broadway in the '90s, and still talk about reviving a fourth time," Shiner said.

David Shiner is U.S.-born - a rarity among the high creative ranks for the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil enterprise - and is best known in the States for his clowning in the film "Lorenzo's Oil," his guiding role as the original Cat in the Hat in the Broadway musical "Seussical" and especially for the two-man, all-mimed show with Bill Irwin, "Fool Moon," "that we played for three engagements on Broadway in the '90s, and still talk about reviving a fourth time," Shiner said.

(Irwin, by happy coincidence, is also here in town, through June 15, world-premiering a show at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, "The Happiness Lecture." He and Shiner have agreed to do a "talk back" panel discussion, "Not Just Fooling Around," after the matinee June 7. Admission to the chat is free for all.)

Like Cirque's French Canadian founders, Shiner also started out a street performer, though in Boulder, Colo. And like them, he's been quite the globe traveler.

When he couldn't find good work and appreciation in the U.S. for his funny business, Shiner moved to Paris in 1981, first working in the streets and then landing jobs clowning in traditional, one-ring European circus troupes - France's Cirque de Demain, then Germany's Circus Roncalli (about which he speaks in especially reverent tones) and then with the Swiss National company, Circus Knie.

Welcome to the Machine

Shiner first made a Cirque connection doing a two-man show with a company principal, Rene Bazinet. He formalized the relationship in 1990, joining the cast of Cirque's fourth show "Nouvelle Experience," which spent 19 months on the road and a year planted in Las Vegas. "It was actually the very first show they took to Vegas, for a tented engagement on a hotel parking lot [at the Mirage] that just went on and on and on."

Shiner first made a Cirque connection doing a two-man show with a company principal, Rene Bazinet. He formalized the relationship in 1990, joining the cast of Cirque's fourth show "Nouvelle Experience," which spent 19 months on the road and a year planted in Las Vegas. "It was actually the very first show they took to Vegas, for a tented engagement on a hotel parking lot [at the Mirage] that just went on and on and on."

Now, of course, Cirque du Soleil has five permanent shows playing the gambling town in customized mega-theaters and two more installations in the works, including a magic-centric show opening in September at the Luxor called "Chris Angel - Believe," and an on-again/off-again Elvis Presley tribute that hopefully will come together and as well as their amazing Beatles-themed show, "Love."

There are also 10 more tented Cirque shows floating around the world, and plans to expand the empire even more, with three big shows just for Macau, the resort destination off the coast of Hong Kong.

Shiner agrees that those permanent Vegas ventures are "amazing" to behold but "a daunting task" for a director - and not really where his head is at.

"I cut my teeth in the one-ring circus, so it's got a special place in my heart. That's what 'Kooza' is celebrating. It's really about the artistry of the performers, the emotion they create."

Cirque, his way

For sure, there's some staggering, spine-tingling stuff in this show, starting off with three very young female contortionists who twist themselves into unbelievable sculptural works. It hurts just to watch. Shiner calls this magical routine "like watching living jewelry. It's just so elegant."

For sure, there's some staggering, spine-tingling stuff in this show, starting off with three very young female contortionists who twist themselves into unbelievable sculptural works. It hurts just to watch. Shiner calls this magical routine "like watching living jewelry. It's just so elegant."

The director/writer also is very high on the silver-sequined and otherwise dazzling Anthony Gatto, calling him "the best juggler in the world. After I saw him, I had to have him for the show."

And how about that pair of fearless, gravity-defying guys who run, jump and skip rope inside and atop two wheels spinning at the ends of a giant rotating pendulum? They don't call it the Wheel of Death for nothing.

Shiner agrees.

"It's terrifying, a great act, so dangerous. The momentum on that huge spinning thing is so great. It's so easy to go flying off, and the dismount, if you do it wrong . . . "

While he offers some input on the acrobatic acts, Shiner's training and interest really come to the fore with "Kooza" 's clowns. For a change, the Cirque funny guys aren't just time killers meant to distract us while the set is being reconfigured. These merry pranksters seem central to the show's devil-may-care spirit, often working on the edge in an old school, slapstick, Keystone Kops-meet-the-Three Stooges vein.

Confetti flies everywhere and so do people. A fluffy dog does a nasty deed that could easily upset the ticketholders. A slimy pickpocket artist works his con on a hapless victim pulled out of the audience.

You're glad it's not you.

Not all's funny business

All went well in our conversation until I dared to ask Shiner if spectators pulled out of the seats by the clowns were authentic ticket buyers or "plants" - part of the show. Suddenly, he became agitated.

All went well in our conversation until I dared to ask Shiner if spectators pulled out of the seats by the clowns were authentic ticket buyers or "plants" - part of the show. Suddenly, he became agitated.

"I can't tell you that," he declared. "You don't really want to know that, now do you? Asking me that is like asking a magician how he does his tricks. These are wonderful secrets that you like to keep that way. I won't spoil anything for the audience."

Shiner also argued that it would be disrespectful to the clowns to share their business. "In the U.S., we tend to dismiss clowns as simple characters in baggy pants, big shoes, a fright wig and a big red nose. But in Europe, and with Cirque, clowning is a highly respected profession for an artist and a highly refined art. Truth is, it takes years for these guys to come up with a great 10 minutes of material."

But that's not to say that the clown bits (or the other acts) in "Kooza" are fixed in stone. "I encourage the performers to keep trying different things, especially at matinees when there are lot of kids in the audience," tipped Shiner. "Children are more generous with their laughter, and more forgiving when something doesn't go exactly right." *

Cirque du Soleil plays on the Avenue of the Arts (Broad Street and Washington Avenue) through June 15. Tickets $50-$85, ages 2-12, $35-$59.50, ages 65-plus, $45-$76.50, students (with ID) $45-$76.50. 1-800-678-5440, www.cirquedusoleil.com.