The legendary Practical Theatre is back on a comedy stage in Evanston

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The memories rush back when I see their faces. There they stand, Paul Barrosse and Victoria Zielinski, married for more that 30 years, parents of two grown daughters, recently moved to Evanston after a couple of decades in Los Angeles and still bright and funny and full of exciting plans, which prominently include “Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue” that is being performed at Studio5 in Evanston.

“We have been at this a long time,” says Dana, who is Dana Olsen, originally from Park Ridge and now living in Evanston. “We have a more mature perspective on the world but we still, maybe now more than ever, have to laugh.”

Indeed, but all I can think of at the moment is the back room, the “cabaret room” as it was called, of a flashy drag show emporium named Club Victoria on North Broadway, where I was sitting one May night in 1986 and watching a comedy show called “Art, Ruth & Trudy!” in which Barrosse and Zielinski and a terrific actor named Jamie Baron starred, with Steve Rashid on piano.

I was so delighted that I would write a few days later for the pages of this newspaper that it “is so refreshingly funny and effectively playful that it renews one’s faith in the power of comedy.” Also this: “A show of wicked and delightful fun. It contains 30-some numbers, of varying length and style, but all firmly anchored by intelligence and wit.”

I had watched and written about these folks, collectively the Practical Theatre Company, for some years by then. Formed by Barrosse (from Cleveland), Zielinski (a South Sider) and some other Northwestern University alums in 1979, the PTC was in its time a red-hot and well deserved success. It operated from two spaces, the 42-seat storefront John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street in Evanston and a 150-seat space in Piper’s Alley, what is now the Second City e.t.c. Stage. It put on a series of hit shows, each imbued with wit, intelligence and silliness. In 1982, the four cast members of its ”Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee” were hired by “Saturday Night Live.” They were Barrosse, Gary Kroeger, Brad Hall and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (Zielinski was to have been part but had to bow out due to the demands of her law school studies).

These folks, primarily PTC artistic directors Hall and Barrosse, regularly commuted from New York City to Chicago in their efforts to keep the PTC alive and were able to do so for a few years. The last big success was “Art, Ruth & Trudy!,” which moved from Club Victoria to the Briar Street Theatre and then ended its nine-month run at the Vic Theatre.

But by 1990 Barrosse and Zielinski were married, living in Los Angeles and basically finished with performing. “For 20 years we did the family thing, and that was great,” says Barrosse. “Parent-teacher conferences, dance recitals.”

“And soccer games,” said Zielinski. “But then, after all that family time we asked ourselves, ‘Are we soccer parents or comedians?’ and that is when we started to craft the ‘Paul and Vic Show.’”

“It was something we needed to do,” says Zielinski. “But the kids would see us rehearsing in the kitchen and ask, full of alarm, ‘Are you guys fighting?’”

The “Paul and Vic Show,” with longtime friend and collaborator Rashid, was a hit at various small clubs in Los Angeles and elsewhere. And its success spawned the idea of what would become a regular holiday entertainment that would include Olsen.

They had all met as NU students, involved with that crafty concoction called the Mee-Ow Show, a venerable NU musical-comedy revue. Before graduation, Olsen was thinking about going to Los Angeles to start a career as a stand-up comic, “even though,” he says, “I didn’t even have a good five minutes of material.” But three days before graduation, he got a call from the offices of former NU student and TV producer and film director Garry Marshall, who he had met on campus. “He was at the time running three top-10 shows, ‘Mork and Mindy,’ ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ and he offered me a job and so, the day after I graduated, there I was in an office in L.A. as a staff writer of ‘Laverne and Shirley’.”

He would go on to write a lot of TV and such films as “The ‘Burbs” and “George of the Jungle.” By 2013, he was back together and again doing shows with Barrosse, Zielinski and Rashid, “every New Year’s Eve and so, so much fun.”

Rashid’s wife Béa Rashid is a choreographer, dance educator and theatrical director, as well as director of Dance Center Evanston and founder of the Evanston Dance Ensemble. Together they run Studio5, a performing arts venue that features all manner of events.

Last year, the Rashids and their two grown sons created a computer-inspired show called “Into the Mist,” which took viewers back to 1927 and was, as I wrote, “innovative, dreamlike and futuristic.” It was, Rashid said, “part game, part puzzle, part interaction, part entertainment. One of the delights of this is that it is difficult to describe. It is also difficult to find something to compare it to. I have never seen anything like it.”

It also featured Barrosse and Zielinski playing Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker engaged in a lively argument.

The couple had hoped to perform their holiday show last year but, as Barrosse says, “Omicron hit and things just weren’t so post-pandemic anymore and we canceled the show. But we are so ready now, we can’t wait.”

The shows will be embellished by music from Rashid and a band which includes Jim Cox on bass, Don Stiernberg on various other stringed instruments and Ronny Crawford on drums. Cocktails will be served.

“And there might even be a Whoopee cushion involved,” says Zielinski. “We like to think of ourselves as doing a smart show but we do have our share of low brow.”

Nerves?

“Until I can get that first laugh I am a wreck,” says Olsen. “But that’s OK. Our whole relationship for the last 40 years is based on making each other laugh.”

And it’s been a rare pleasure to have been along for part of that ride.

“Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue” is 8 p.m. Dec. 29-31 and Jan. 4-7 at Studio5 Performing Arts Center, 1938 Dempster St., Evanston; www.tickettailor.com

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