By sight, by sound and by smell shall ye know it -- the circus is back in town. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey extravaganza will be encamped at the D.C. Armory through April 7.

The circus is anything you can get away with -- like the notorious "Living Unicorn," which bears no small resemblance to a goat.

The circus is also one of the few places outside the Pentagon where excess is not only accepted but encouraged.

This is true not only in a trio of gauche production numbers that allow circus goers to head for bathrooms and souvenir stands, but in the very concept of three perpetually active rings watchable through only one set of eyes.

And then there's the program book, the kind that matches the over-the-rainbow wardrobe with purple prose along the lines of "A Phenomenal Pageant of Pulchritudinous Pachyderms Presenting Precision Prancing Prowess and Palpably Precarious Perfection."

Besides the "unicorn" and a fresh influx of acrobatic families from around the world, the circus is comfortingly familiar. Oh, there are always new elements, whether extra half-somersaults on the teeterboards or an extra motorcycle in the Globe of Death, a sort of motorized mini-Thunderdome. But mostly what this 115th edition is about is reassurance that the greatest show on Earth continues to equally emphasize greatest, show and Earth.

At times, that can mean almost too much circus, particularly for the adults who must chauffeur the kids who make up the heart and soul of the audience. There's an overload of pageantry and parade, though you can't go wrong with those 20 gorgeous elephants coming on like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes (and they're gray, not pink!). But after the garish costumes, after the coterie of animals, after the brassy band, it always comes back to the people -- and even the circus can't have too many of those.

Watching trapeze artists like Mexico's Flying Espanas, or teeterboard families like Romania's Constantins and Bulgaria's Dukovis, ply their trades with the greatest of ease, it's easy to forget how hard and physical their routines can be. Some high-wire artists work with nets. Others, like Colombia's Posso Brothers, insist on pursuing their tightwire terror unsecured. Just often enough, the circus gets you nervous.

There are more clowns than on Capitol Hill and a zoo's worth of animals, from chimps and camels to Russian wolfhounds and poodles. People do clever and ridiculous things with and to the animals. Then again, golden-maned Gunther Gebel-Williams and his clan elevate the man-beast relationship to a higher plane, with three rings full of prancing, dancing horses and a center ring full of stately tigers. Don't let the tigers' growls and swipes fool you. They like Gunther, and it's not hard to see why.

Circus performers must have an absolute trust in one another to make everything work show after show, year after year. It's good to know that audiences can have the same trust in the circus.