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A CurtainUp Review
Riding the Midnight Express

"It's so easy to drift away in jail, to lose sight of yourself. Prison says You're a loser, you're a loser, 24 hours a day and that shit seeps in…if it gets to the center, you are lost. "
Billy Hayes
Billy Hayes (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Midnight Express is the harrowing true story of 23-year-old Billy Hayes after his arrest at the Istanbul airport and the nightmare that followed. It became a best-selling book in 1976 and an Academy Award winning film in 1978.

Under a plaster cast taped around his body, officials had found two kilos of hashish Hayes was smuggling out of Turkey. It was a crime of Hayes' own doing that called for four years of prison in Turkey. Officials later upped the sentence to life imprisonment and the story that followed was capped by his hair-raising ride on the "midnight express" which is prison slang for escape. Hayes admits, "When I look back now, the idiocy of that move is hard to understand, but it seemed like a good idea at the time."

In a limited run at St. Luke's Theater, Billy Hayes, now 67, presents his memoir as a stage play, directed by John Gould Rubin. (The first theater presentation was in Los Angeles' Blank Theater and months later at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival). Hayes is a mesmerizing storyteller. He with animation, charm and dry, self-effacing humor even though the barbarity he endured is prime edge-of-the-seat stuff.

The monologue alternates moments of terror with sadistic guards with segments of endless boredom. Rats, food, showers, bribery were ways of life. He constantly planned ways to escape and reveals some philosophical ideas that evolve during his struggle to survive. Occasionally, Hayes takes deep cleansing breaths, almost as if he were still back there.

Against a spare, bland background with subtle lighting, set designer, Josh Iocobelli provides a stool for our storyteller. At the end of the no-frills, 70 minute performance, Hayes invites questions from the audience. He seems relieved to be sharing this emotional and dramatic period in his life, one that continues to shape him.

Hayes seems most determined to clarify plot lines and scenes of the story that were fictionalized in the film, such as a love interest with a fabricated girlfriend and just a mere suggestion of an actual homosexual interlude. He points out mix-ups in the chronology of events, distorted episodes of violence and, especially important, the altered facts about the sentencing trial that faced him just 54 days before his incarceration was to end. The high Court in Ankara, in response to Nixon's War on Drugs, decided to make an example of Hayes, rejected the original four-year and two-month sentence and raised it to life in jail. Hayes, portrayed as desperate, raged in the courtroom at the Turkish people, screaming hatred for everything Turkish.

That courtroom section of the film is false and its overblown drama repelled the Turkish people. After the film's release, an Interpol warrant was issued for Hayes' arrest, a warrant that stood for 20 years. Actually, Hayes' response at the trial was unemotional. "I say something about laws changing from one country to another, one time period to another, and if after being in your prison three years now, you're going to sentence me to more prison, I cannot agree with you, all I can do is forgive you." While he stresses the corrupt Turkish legal system, he is fond of the Turkish people, who he feels were all castigated in the film. Tourism fell drastically in the country after the film's release and it was 2007 before Hayes himself returned to the country that had always fascinated him.

Another change from the film involves Hayes' real prison escape. The film shows him killing a jailer but Hayes insists he never killed anyone. The facts behind his actual escape are as theatrically engrossing as any big-budget, high-tech, big screen bonanza. His flight was heightened by threatening perils while battling the stormy waters of the Sea of Marmara in a stolen dinghy.

After the escape, the book and the film, Hayes wrote two more books about his ordeal. He lectures in schools, on television and in lecture halls —insisting that the arrest was his fault. He had smuggled hash out of Turkey three times before his final arrest. As a young hippie, he was self-centered, wild, and running around Europe, adventurous with no sense of responsibility. And he recognizes the irony of being a criminal and escaped convict while after his escape, he became a celebrity at the Cannes Film Festival. As he summs it up: "Back home, I protested everything bad about America —Vietnam, civil rights, woman's rights, and took everything good for granted. Then I lost it all in an instant--people, places, food, culture, law, language--everything changed and I had to change with it. And change reveals strengths and weaknesses I never knew about, and eventually I learn what's important to me, what I really need…eventually."

Midnight Express
Written by and starring Billy Hayes
Directed by John Gould Rubin
Set and Lighting Consultant: Josh Iocobelli
Producer: Barbara Ligeti
Running Time: 70 minutes. Q&A with Billy Hayes and audience after each performance
At St. Luke's Theatre, 311 West 46nd Street
Tickets: $66.50, $99, $39.50. Call 212.239.6200. Box Office
Performances: Wed..2pm, 8pm; Fri. 5pm. Sat. at 2pm
Previews: 01/22/14; Opens: 02/05/14. Closes: 3/23/14
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 01/29/14
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