Fie on the man who said it first. There weren't many words left for the critic after he filled the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus program book with all the deserved superlative and exciting descriptions of the magic of this three-ring circus. The 110th edition, which last night opened a 29-performance run at the D.C. StarPlex Armory, is after all a magic kingdom patterned in history and imagination. It starts with "An Artful Arsenal of Acrobatic Alacrity," journeys through 20 stupendous acts and reaches enough thrilling and bodacious peaks to shut out the drudgery and dullness of the world beyond StarPlex for a solid three hours.

There is no dead air at the circus -- they can always send in the clowns. And if the names of the acrobats and trapeze artists seem drawn from exotic ethnic locales, it only confirms the universality of quests for deeds of wonder and derring-do. Among the highlights: Ursula Bottcher and her 10 "Frankly Fearsome, Feverishly Ferocious Polar Bears,"; the "Pulsating Profusion of Pachydermic Pageantry" (that's plain English for 12 elephants in a calypso number Busby Berkeley would have been proud of); the one-wheeled globe trotting of the King Charles Troupe and a plethora of high-wire heroics. And there's the star of the show, Elvin Bale, "The Human Space Shuttle, the Phantom of Balance on the Wheel of Death." Bale managed to make the impossible almost implausible, but his near failures high above the ground on the spinning wheel of death added some welcome anxiety to the proceedings.

Two minor complaints: The orchestra was amplified much too loudly, particularly for children's ears. And in the theater of access that a circus must necessarily be, the bombastic and ill-conceived "Close Encounters of the Circus Kind" gives a bad name to the word extravaganza. Ultimately the cobweb clutter of ropes, pulleys, ladders, trapeze bars and high wires spread through the StarPlex sky was very much the spider's web that caught a collective imagination. The circus thrills and entralls through April 27.