Colonel Joe, the 9-foot-2, 10,508-pound elephant, missed the start of the Circus Vargas show at the Patriot Center yesterday, though he did make it for the second half. Joe and three of his portentous friends were offering their services to the Washington Redskins out at Redskin Park. Joe alone would have made fans forget about the Hogs. How about them Pachyderms? But despite availability -- "have trunk, will travel" -- and a dream salary -- "I work for peanuts" -- he didn't even get a tryout because Fairfax County police decided four elephants would only add to the tensions between strikers and strikebreakers and wouldn't let the animals out of their vans.

Like Redskin Park, Circus Vargas is a three-ring circus. It's also one of the last of the big tops. This week's stand at the Patriot Center and four days at the Capital Centre next week are its first-ever indoor shows, and Colonel Joe, Trudy's Dalmatians, the Osmani Sisters, the Ayak Brothers and all the other families of animals and man who make Circus Vargas a circus seem to have made the move without any particular difficulty. As always, the difficulty remains in their acts.

Take the husband-and-wife high-wire duo Nikolai and Bertalina Nikolski, whose derring-do began long before they defected from the Soviet Circus last year. At one point Nikolai leans out perpendicular to the wire, which is a mere 60 feet off the ground. Later, he climbs up and down a ladder teetering on the wire. He ties his feet to the wire and twirls under and around. He walks across it blindfolded with Bertalina standing on his shoulders. It's thrilling, it's theatrical. Maybe they could turn it into a musical: "No, No -- No Net!"

Then there's Alan Gold, who looks as if he should be fronting a heavy metal band. But few rockers would put their head between a lion's jaws with such relish, and Gold does have a way with Bengal and Siberian tigers and Nubian lions alike. As with any good circus, there are lots of animals, some wild, some mild. Keep an eye out for the two llamas running with the ponies in Mr. Strong's act and the camels hanging out with the ponies in Mr. Polk's act.

Keep two eyes out for the skimpily dressed Vargettes in the "Can Can" Aerial Ballet ("Wow! This is good!" said a very focused fifth-grader at yesterday's opener). Circus Vargas is a lot less glitzy and sequin-strewn than Ringling Bros. et al. It's a genial, down-to-earth kind of circus, except of course for aerialists like the Morales and the Fornasaris (both Flying), or the Fornasaris doubling on trampolines (but not billed as the Hopping Fornasaris), and the Cristianis and the Beckman Troupe, masters and mistresses of the teeterboard. And South Africa's Ayak Brothers offer some dangerous-looking barefeets of daring on a trapeze.

There are some slow spots -- the clowns don't, or at least not enough; the Italos turn a gag into a routine and run it into the ground; ringmaster Joe Pon is a little bland; and the Patriot Center doesn't yet have the requisite aroma de cirque, though it was beginning to by show's end. "It smells now, it's you-know-what," one child confided to another. A little later, when the Guzman/Camadi Duo was doing its own high-wire act, the same child whispered, "I wouldn't do that for the world!" Of course, that's exactly who the Circus Vargas does it for.

Circus Vargas is at the Patriot Center through Monday, with morning and afternoon shows tomorrow through Sunday, and evening shows every night but Sunday. It will move to Capital Centre next Wednesday through Sunday, with morning shows on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, afternoon shows Friday through Sunday, and evening shows Wednesday through Saturday.