Behind the waltz: Tales from Vienna Woods

I recognized the grand, soaring classical music playing in the background as soon as I walked into the Ryerson Theatre. It was the famous waltz, Tales from Vienna Woods, composed by Johann Strauss II, an Austrian composer. The play being presented that night was also of the same name, performed by third-year acting students at Ryerson.

The play was written by Ödön von Horváth, an Austro-Hungarian playwright and it is his most famous. It is set in Vienna over 60 years after the Strauss waltz it was named after first premiered.

The waltz became all the rage for fashionable society in Vienna, which was considered the capital of arts and culture of Europe in Strauss’ day. During this time, the city was a glittering, sophisticated metropolis with many cultural contributions. It was considered the breeding ground and gathering place for philosophers, artists, architects, painters, politicians and more.

But by 1931, which is the year the play takes place, Vienna has fallen from grace and the characters in the play are suffering as a result.

“Vienna was experiencing a very great depression and rampant inflation,” says Cynthia Ashperger, the director of the production and director of Ryerson’s acting program. “A lot of this play focuses on what happened during this economic collapse.”

Robert Iannuzziello plays the role of Captain – a character that, Iannuzziello says, is living in his own world by trying to hold on to the past, which is the beauty that Vienna once was.

“The world is almost a fairytale for him,” he says. “He’s always having a good time and a big sense of humour, trying to make everyone laugh. But it’s the depression, and there are a lot of hardships, even though he tries not to focus on them.”

Between every scene and sometimes during scenes, Strauss’ music plays in the background.
“The music is from the golden era and meanwhile people are in the not-so-golden era,” Ashperger says.

Ashperger was born in Croatia, the same country as Ödön von Horváth. She watched Tales from Vienna Woods around 10 times as a little girl when she accompanied her best friend’s mother, who worked at the local theatre, and fell in love.

She remembers that every time see saw it felt like she was watching it for the first time all over again.

“The hardest thing for me,” she says, “is living up to my own expectations of this play. You only have a few plays that you care about and move you this deeply. There are a very small select group of plays I worship.”

The play is a huge production with dozens of actors and production students involved in its creation. Iannuzziello says it was difficult for the actors to balance the intense rehearsal schedule with their courses, but working with Ashperger made it enjoyable.

“She approaches the work with a lot of light, enthusiasm and encouragement,” he says. “She’s definitely the glue that holds us together and lifts us into the world [of the play].”

Photos: Petrija Dos Santos