Stage Door: </b><i>Blithe Spirit, Cirque's Kooza, Mary Stuart</i></b>

Stage Door:
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British comedies have usually played well on American shores. The tart Blithe Spirit, now at the Schubert Theater, is no exception. The revival is a light-hearted trifle, but still manages to send up marriage, fidelity and the spirit world. And it doesn't hurt that it stars Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett, who give this Noel Coward classic its bite.

Coward's 1941 ghost story takes place in a country house in Kent. The play swings into action when Madame Arcati (Lansbury) appears. She's been invited to the home of Charles and Ruth Condomine (Everett and Jane Armstrong) to perform a séance. Though the Condomines are appropriately condescending, aided by their stolid friends, a doctor (Simon Jones) and his wife, the medium, deliciously portrayed by Lansbury, is a riot. To summon the spirit world, she puts the Irving Berlin song "Always" on the gramophone, then gyrates and dances around the room. Soon, she falls into a trance and suddenly, Elvira, the first Mrs. Condomine (Ebersole), garbed all in spectral white, appears.

The catch? She's only visible to Charles, her former husband, who is stunned by the reappearance of his beloved first wife. But while he speaks to her, his current wife is left to assume her husband's gone mad. When she's finally convinced of the veracity of his tale, they eventually discover that Elvira has an agenda all her own.

The dialogue is witty and the plotting, which has various twists and turns, is deft. Coward's humor is always acidic, which adds to the fun. Comedies such as these, which carry a light, upper-crust tone, are exceedingly difficult to pull off. The ensemble manages to do Coward proud. The antics, be they Ebersole's or Lansbury's, are fun. A fizzy Lansbury is a particular crowd-pleaser, while Susan Louise O'Connor as the maid, mines her small role for laughs. Blithe Spirit is a spirited and enjoyable revival.

Similarly spirited, Cirque du Soleil made its reputation presenting performances that defy the capacity of the human form. Its current show, Kooza, now playing at Randall's Island Park, continues to exhilarate. Here, in addition to remarkable contortionists, the highlight is several extraordinary clowns. The king (Gordon White) is a delight from the moment he mimes the initial announcements (no smoking, no photographs) to later interactions with two comic minions. The pickpocket's (Lee Thompson) smooth routine is a winner.

Kooza's framing device is the encounter between a short, naïve Innocent, striving to find his place in the world, and the Trickster, a lithe, sinister guide into the world of acrobats and aerial artists. The performers use the age-old technique of failing at a trick in order to heighten suspense, but it works.

Several of the acts are ingeniously executed - whether its two men on the amazing Wheel of Death, an acrobat who sits atop seven chairs or a 19-person teeter-board routine complete with an actor flipping in stilts. Kooza's direction and its talented ensemble are a feast for the eyes; illusions are made real. The show boasts colorful costumes and terrific background music. One quibble - the order of the acts should be refigured to build to a breathtaking crescendo. Instead, some of the most impressive numbers come midway. Still, director David Shiner took Stephen Sondheim's advice to heart: Send in the clowns.

Conversely, Mary Stuart is decidedly earthbound. The clash of power is between Elizabeth, Queen of England (Harriett Walter) and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Janet McTeer). Though Elizabeth, a Protestant, rules England, Mary, a Catholic who has been imprisoned in London for 19 years, has a legitimate claim to the throne. A rallying cry for the rebel cause, Mary is suspected of supporting plots to assassinate Elizabeth. The English queen is icy and professional; the other is elemental and inflames men's desires. Together, they are extraordinary to watch.

Each seasoned actress, in period dress, gives a commanding performance, aided by an ensemble of modern-suited men, whose allegiances and betrayals engulf them. Yet Schiller's 1800 play at the Broadhurst Theater is a bit creaky. The historic backdrop isn't clearly defined in the drama, which can be somewhat confusing to American audiences. However, the political machinations, smartly directed by Phyllida Lloyd, are chillingly executed. This is a fight to the death.

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