I got swept up in the sordid events surrounding Julie S. Caesar when my editor assigned me to interview her about her cross-over political career. She was the star of The Real Housewives of Trevi, a reality show about the women who lived in an opulent gated city with private golf courses, private beaches, gardens, beautiful homes. She was campaigning to annex Gaul, a depressed town next to Trevi where many of its housekeepers, stylists, and private chefs commute from. Julie S. Caesar seemed an unlikely spokesperson for populism. I knew there had to be a story there…
Julie S. Caesar & The Real Housewives of Trevi
Jennifer Leeson (Rail): This isn’t the first time we’ve had a conversation about this project, but I want you to take me back to when you first thought to put together these strange bedfellows that are The Real Housewives franchise and Shakespeare.
Andi Stover: Well, for me they totally go together like peanut butter and jelly. It came out of a joke that I said to myself, but I was saying it to Aimee Davis, the dramaturg on the show, “We’ll do Shakespeare in the Park and call it Julius Caesar Salad and it’ll be about The Housewives.”
And I was just joking, but then as soon as I said Julius Caesar Salad I was like, well, that’s exactly right because I was just coming off of probably 10 straight hours of watching The Real Housewives of New York season 3, and I thought, it is so much like the plot of Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius are plotting to stop Caesar’s rise to power in the way that Jill Zarin was trying to stop Bethenny Frankel’s rise to power in a very different way. But is it ever different? I don’t know.
Rail: As a viewer it was really painful to watch that storyline unfold over the course of the season. I’ve been a very big fan of the series [Andi laughs], but I like to think, or at least kid myself, that I’m watching with a critical eye, so, you know, I’m actively trying to process the information in a way that’s not simply letting it invade my brain. I try to watch it with a critical understanding to try to unpack what’s happening.
Stover: Right. For fans of The Real Housewives, what’s so fascinating is that their characters extend into their real lives, and then there are these two conflicting narratives that are happening at the same time. First, there’s Bethenny Frankel, who immediately comes to mind since she’s the person—and we’ve talked about this before—who “wins.”
Rail: It’s worth mentioning that you and I both agree to the conceit that it’s a competition and there is a winner.
Stover: Oh, absolutely.
Rail: Even though it may be unspoken, it’s completely understood by everyone involved.
Stover: Even in New York Magazine in their recaps of the episodes they declare a winner of each episode. What also makes The Real Housewives so interesting to viewers is it makes obvious the things that are a part of our everyday life in capitalism—navigating the work force, and competition, and who has the most money. I like to think of The Housewives as our gladiators.
Rail: We’re tuning in to the blood sport of character assassination week after week.
Stover: Exactly—who’s going to come out on top?
Rail: One commonality across the entire series is this shared anxiety about who is the perceived ruler of a particular show. When you look back at how the series first started, it seemed as though the producers were trying to provide equal screen time and portray a group of women, or a group of friends.
Stover: An ensemble. The Senate. We’re all coming together to share power and the spotlight.
Rail: Yet, it seems so often the case that when there’s a breakout star, the ensemble becomes a breeding ground for contempt and jealousy.
Stover: Right, absolutely.
Rail: Or when people are perceived to be unjustly successful.
Stover: And not deserving of what they get. In Julius Caesar there’s that scene where Brutus and Cassius are off to the side and Caesar is getting the crown put on him and everyone’s screaming and Brutus is afraid—“Oh, are they crowning him?” And we’ve taken that scene and made it a charity event.
Rail: That’s a very familiar Housewives trope.
Stover: Instead of being at the Colosseum, they’re at a fashion show. There’s still the same character (Brutus is renamed as Britny) that experiences the same anxiety. Is she (Julie S.) being made the new star? What all these women are trying to do—they’re trying to plug into what is the popular opinion with their blogs and their tweets and how many followers do they have—and they try to measure their success in that way. And some are successful and others, although they try, are not. In Julius Caesar I think a lot of what the plot hinges on is: Brutus is unsuccessful in swaying the public’s opinion where Marc Antony is triumphant. That’s what the whole switch of the play is. When I read it, I thought, “This is just like today.” We’re so obsessed with popularity and who has the most friends. Everybody wants so desperately to be famous and to be the breakout star. To have a media presence—whatever that means.
Rail: It goes back to what you were saying earlier about giving more to the audience in terms of access to the characters beyond the limits of their respective hour-long shows. Who can be the most successful orator? Who can convert the most fans to their side? Public opinion features so heavily in Julius Caesar and is prominent in your adaptation as well. There are no clear heroes or villains.
Stover: Everyone is dirty. It’s the whole idea that Bravo has created a way for the casts to interact with their fans, which other networks are now trying to replicate—they’re live tweeting during the shows, so you can see the live Twitter feed on their website. You can also go to Twitter and see what other people are tweeting while they’re watching the show, which is a whole other realm of connecting and marketing and selling. We’ve tried to emulate that in our show. We have it set up so people can tweet their responses to the show, and they’ll be projected live to simulate that feeling that you’re commenting and participating in the action … although are we really? By putting it in the live medium it asks the questions: How impactful is this? Is this a real connection? Or is it just more noise that we’re creating?
As a person who loves social media, and I get a real kick out of it, I do ask myself: How much of this is just a complete waste of time, and how much of it is communication? I don’t really know. I just think we take this technology into our life, and we don’t take into consideration how it’s impacting our relationships and how we connect with people.
Rail: How much control do these women ultimately have, or are their actions, or fates, being determined for them in a way?
Stover: I wonder about the women on these reality shows. It seems, in a lot of ways, that they are owned by the network when they sign on to do the show. And they’re so willing to do it—I don’t know if they understand the cost of what they’re doing when they sign up. There’s a part of the show right after Julie S. is stabbed, and I’m not going to say how she’s stabbed—I want you to see it—where there’s just an onslaught of media. It’s like a media collage of people’s reactions, and video, and audio, and that is the question: How much is enough? I don’t think, when people enter that world, that people think about the consequences. Because everyone in our culture wants to be on television so badly they don’t think about the consequences of doing that.
Rail: There has to be a certain amount of denial—we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re impervious to the same fates of those who have gone before us.
Stover: And the great dramatists are continually perplexed and inspired by exactly that. The human characteristic, or the human trait, that enables us to tell ourselves, “Oh, well, this isn’t going to happen to me.” There’s a point in Julius Caesar, and in our play, too, where just character after character is telling Julie S. not to go to the taping, and she says, “No, it’s not gonna happen. It’s gonna be fine!” while all of the signs are pointing to: yes, it happened with Julius Caesar.
Rail: As viewers, we perversely relish in their inevitable fall.
Stover: The demise of the person we chose to exalt, which is so much like the Romans. And so much of what Shakespeare was dealing with in the play—the cost of power. You know, the private costs of ambition and what it does not only to Caesar, but to the conspirators. They’re destroyed by it, too. They do everything in their power to destroy him, so they can be the powerful ones, and in doing so they’re destroyed. Shakespeare doesn’t let us get away with a lot of our pipe dreams.
Rail: There’s always justice.
Stover: A reckoning.
Rail: Against an unchecked rise to absolute power. We never really see it work out for anyone, and yet that doesn’t stop us—we never seem to learn.
Stover: The murderers, or the conspirators, of Julius Caesar sacrifice their private conscience to do this public act. Many of them thought they were acting in the name of public good—the populace will see that they’re doing the right thing. It’s the private transgression of personal conscience that ultimately undoes them. You see it happen over and over. It’s so human. I mean, the thing about Julius Caesar is that it’s on the stage of history, but we see this behavior on The Housewives, in the school yard, in the workplace—there’s just something so incredibly human about striving for power and then falling from it. It’s sad that we haven’t been able to play nice with each other. I know people write off The Housewives, but I think it just makes so obvious everything that we’re trying to suppress as a culture.
Julie S. Caesar & The Real Housewives of Trevi, adapted and directed by Andi Stover, featuring Mike Albo, Daniela Amini, Brandy Barber, Sandra Bauleo, Elise Bernlohr, Nora Burns, Cary Curran, Gwen Calvez, Heather Litteer, Kathleen Purcell, and Michael Wiener is produced by LiveFeedNYC and runs on Mondays beginning April 16 at the Ace Hotel, 20 West 29th Street, New York. For tickets and more info, visit: livefeednyc.org.
JENNIFER LEESON is a freelance writer and dramaturg living in Brooklyn.