Step right up . . .Ringling's circus is briefer, still dishes up plenty of fun

The ``greatest show on earth'' is shrinking! And that's all to the good, as I see it. In years of regular circusgoing, my main complaint has been getting too much of a good thing -- not in size, but in length.

This year's edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been pared down to about 21/2 hours, which allows for plenty of elephants and clowns without putting young children (or me) into an overstimulated daze.

There's still some padding I could do without, especially the noisy pageants and parades. And then there's the mascot of the 1985 show. It's billed as ``the living unicorn'' and showcased as if it were the wonder of the century. But it looks like a one-horned goat to me, which isn't a marvel even if it's rare. My advice is to teach it some tricks and make it work for a living like the other animals. (Some authorities are reportedly investigating the ``unicorn'' and where it came from, to see if mistreatment is involved. The circus denies any wrongdoing and says ``grinches'' are trying to ``steal the fantasy.'')

This aside, there's lots of fun to be had from the circus's 115th season, which I caught at Madison Square Garden on opening night. This year being New York's turn for the ``red unit'' (there's also a ``blue unit'' with its own cast and itinerary), the headliner was Gunther Gebel-Williams, the flashy trainer who wears a tiger wrapped around his neck and commands a platoon of elephants just by yelling at them. Since this is a family show, he brought his family along, too -- wife, Sigrid, and daughter, Tina, in the horse department and son, Mark, helping out with the pachyderms.

Among the all-human acts, my very favorite was the Urias Troupe from Brazil, who race motorcycles around the inside of a claustrophobic ``globe of death.'' According to the ringmaster, this act ``defies reality,'' and although I don't know what that means, I'm certainly not going to argue. Also noteworthy is Sabu, who picks up a handkerchief with his teeth while balancing on a trapeze. And a duo called Satin, who hang and spin in various configurations high above the arena. And the springboard folks, who fly through the air and land on one another's shoulders. Interesting skills all, and ones you're not going to find in many other places.

As for the rest, the music is loud and the clowns are active, and what more could one ask? The circus stays at the Garden through June 3 and then embarks on a nationwide tour.

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