Practical Theatre Company comes back to Evanston, where the laughs began

The sketch group that launched Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the ’80s puts on a new show in the comedy-conducive suburb.

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Victoria Zielinski (from left), Paul Barrosse, Dana Olsen and musical director Steve Rashid are performing as Practical Theatre Company.

Bradford Rogne

When three seasoned comedians endure a pandemic together, write a musical sketch comedy show about their experience, then schedule a performance in Evanston in 2021 only for that show to then be canceled due to said pandemic, all they can do is try again.

“Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue,” opening Thursday at Evanston’s Studio 5, benefits from a boosted process this go-round. Practical Theatre Company co-founder Paul Barrosse and cast member Victoria Zielinski, now married, moved to Evanston from Los Angeles last summer, affording them proximity to family (Zielinski is from Beverly) and to Dana Olsen, their creative collaborator rounding out the trio.

Rehearsals are now in-person and they’ve been able to polish the show well in advance — though some elements remain unchanged.

“There’s probably a reason why people of our age don’t go every night on the stage and do these revues, because it’s exhausting,” Zielinski says.

Practical Theatre

‘Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue’

When: Thursday-Saturday and Jan. 4-7

Where: Studio 5, 1934 Dempster St., Evanston

Info: www.studio5.dance

Tickets: $35-$45 ($45-$60 on New Year’s Eve)


Its members are betraying the age of the Practical Theatre Company, an unsung group of Northwestern University performing arts graduates who briefly gave Second City a run for its money in the 1980s and, in the process, afforded Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep,” “Seinfeld”) her big break.

Other productions have featured Richard Kind (“Spin City,” “Mad About You”), Lewis Black (“Inside Out,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”), Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”), Laura Innes (“ER”) and even improv guru Del Close.

Evanston is where all these collaborations began. While attending Northwestern in the late 1970s, Barrosse joined his roommates Brad Hall and Robert Mendel and their friend Angela Murphy and founded The Practical Theatre Company, which dedicated itself to physical, active sketch and improv comedy.

After an on-campus debut season and a second at nearby Noyes Cultural Arts Center, the group attempted the impractical and leased a 42-seat storefront theater space on Howard Street, at the Chicago border.

It was at this time, during the third season, that the group began attracting the attention of the Joseph Jefferson Awards committee.

One judge, the late Second City and Steppenwolf director Sheldon Patinkin, was particularly smitten by Practical Theatre’s comedy revue “Scubba Hey.” Its cast included Barrosse, Hall and two fellow Mee-Ow Show alums: Rush Pearson and, when Zielinski wasn’t available due to law school commitments, a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose days of “Seinfeld,” yada, yada, yada, were still to come.

“I knew she was funny; she could be physical, she could mug and she was smart,” Barrosse says.

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The Practical Theatre Company’s Brad Hall (from left), Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Paul Barrosse in 1983.

Sun-Times file

Patinkin mentioned the group to Bernie Sahlins, co-founder of Second City, who offered them the chance to open a 150-seat theater in the Piper’s Alley space next to his theater’s home on North and Wells.

The first Piper’s Alley show, the cheekily named “The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee,” loosely resembled a Second City revue in how it was structured. The show included all-cast musical numbers, jabs at our fair city (“Chicago! Water Tower Place! Wind! Huge rats! The world championship Chicago Cubs!”), quick blackouts, longer character sketches and Louis-Dreyfus flamenco dancing and shrieking at a high pitch.

“Jubilee” was a hit, and Chicago comedy luminary Tim Kazurinsky (“Police Academy,” “Saturday Night Live”), whom Barrosse had met earlier, mentioned the show to “SNL” producers Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler. Eschewing the tradition of casting off the stage next door, in 1982 “SNL” hired the cast of “Jubilee,” which included Barrosse, Hall, Louis-Dreyfuss and Northwestern alum Gary Kroeger, only a few weeks into its run.

Practical Theatre did one more Piper’s Alley show before leaving in 1984 for the Goodman Theatre, the Vic Theater and The Apollo Theatre, respectively. The group left the stage entirely in 1988. Barrosse and Zielinski got married and moved to Los Angeles, and it wasn’t until their two daughters were of high school and college age, around 2010, that the comedy spark reignited.

“I looked at Paul and said, ‘Either we’re soccer parents, or we’re comedians. Let’s write a show,’ ” Zielinski says.

At the time, Olsen, a friend of the couple’s from Northwestern, was slated to perform his own variety show at the Wilmette Theater. He invited the couple to join, and the trio celebrated their artistic union by adopting the Practical Theatre Company moniker in 2013, producing annual holiday revues in Evanston until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Zielinski is looking forward to the moments of connection she and the other Practical Theatre folks have been missing. “[Our show] can get goofy. It can get vaudeville and slapstick,” she says. “But it can also have very high content that expresses frustration with things that everybody identifies with.”

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