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BWW Reviews: Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes is a Riveting and Emotional Theatrical Journey at the St. Luke's Theatre

By Stephen Hanks

In 1969, five years after the great sci-fi/suspense writer Rod Serling's seminal TV series The Twilight Zone left the airwaves, he returned with a new series called Night Gallery. The pilot episode featured three separate short stories, one called "Escape Route." The main character (played by Richard Kiley) is a Nazi war criminal hiding out in South America, haunted by his past and hunted by the men who want him to pay for his crimes against humanity. One day he enters an art museum and finds a painting of an idyllic scene with a fisherman relaxing peacefully in a canoe. The former Nazi desperately longs to be that fisherman and visits the museum every day, ultimately believing he can escape his past and his pursuers by willing himself into the painting.

Billy Hayes could probably relate to that fictional TV story. In 1975, after Hayes made a daring escape from a Turkish prison where he was serving a life sentence for trying to smuggle hashish, he travels to Amsterdam and visits the Vincent Van Gogh Museum. Among the legendary artist's works is the painting "Prisoners Exercising" (below). In the middle foreground, a blond-haired prisoner stares straight ahead, looking resigned to his fate, an image likely modeled on Van Gogh himself. Billy Hayes gazes at the painting, and as he relates towards the end of Riding the Midnight Express, his current one-man biographical play based on his 1977 book Midnight Express, "I lose myself in the image of a man who looks like me. I know what's behind that man's eyes. I feel like I want to be in the painting."

Such is the love/hate relationship with prison life that can develop when someone lives through such a surreal existence--whether in another country or your own. At the St. Luke's Theatre (until March 23), Billy Hayes relives his full range of emotions and psychological traumas in this taut, tense, and terrific re-telling of his story first revealed in his book, and then in 1978 through the Oliver Stone film version. Explaining the film's exaggerations and inaccuracies which re-wrote parts of Hayes prison experience is just a small, but powerful aspect of Hayes' presentation. As you sit riveted to his almost stream of consciousness storytelling, you feel as though you're at a restaurant dinner party sipping some wine and listening to a friend tell of a recent adventure, and you keep shooing the waiter away because you're not going to order food until this gripping tale is completely told.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Hayes was a middle class kid from Long Island who was studying journalism at Marquette University and had an image of himself as "a swashbuckling pirate." When he wasn't riding motorcycles across Europe or running with the bulls in Pamplona, he was smuggling hashish from Turkey to sell to his friends back in the States. Confident, cocky and without a care in the world, the first few times he went back and forth from Istanbul fully stocked (and probably stoked) without a hitch. But once President Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs" took hold, the Turkish authorities got tougher and in October 1970, at just 23, Hayes got nailed and was sentenced to five years in Turkish prison, which ultimately became a life sentence. That's when Hayes decided he had to escape an existence that included beatings, bribery, a brief homosexual prison relationship, a long period of abstinence, and practicing yoga to help him maintain his sanity. "In prison you're always lonely, never alone," Hayes reveals, as he alternately paces the stage or sinks into a chair. "Prison says you're a loser 24 hours a day."

In the nearly 40 years since his daring prison escape, Hayes has dabbled in acting, directing, screen writing, public speaking, and has gotten a lot of mileage out of his story. In 2013, he published The Midnight Express Letters: From a Turkish Prison 1970-1975, and recently released the book Midnight Return. But Hayes wasn't thinking about staging his tale as a one-man show until last spring when he bumped into producer and California neighbor Barbara Ligeti in Edinburgh, Scotland. Hayes was on his way to London, where the London Coliseum would be premiering, of all things, a Royal Ballet production of Midnight Express. Ligeti had booked an Edinburgh theatre for a show that fell through and needed to bring in another show or she'd be stuck paying rent for an empty theater. She asked Hayes if he had ever thought about doing a theatrical re-telling of his experiences, what Ligeti remembers Hayes as saying was "Both the worst and best thing that ever happened to me." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

Hayes had given lectures with slide show presentations for years, but never staged an actual Midnight Express "show." The idea of "setting the record straight"--especially righting the wrongs of the Stone film--in a more theatrical presentation immediately appealed to Hayes's still obvious risk-taking nature. Ligeti brought in accomplished director John Gould Rubin and her dramaturge friend Jeffrey Altshuler to work with Hayes on a script. "I put Billy in a room with John," Ligeti says, "and they took three hours of rich information and fashioned a delicious 70-minute show." By last August they premiered the work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a production that The Edinburgh Times called: "A remarkable, inherently theatrical tale, which Hayes articulates with great charm, humor and energy . . . Part memoir, part thriller, part philosophical contemplation of freedom . . . this absorbing story proves Hayes to be a fascinating character and charismatic storyteller."

Hayes delivers the descriptive, evocative script in rapid-fire, thriller style, but without seeming rushed. His memories are vivid, and the details clear and expansive. Rubin has done a superb job maximizing Hayes' sense of humor and storytelling skills. Right from the start, Hayes is funny and engaging while still conveying his extreme emotional swings as if living the experiences for the first time. Riding the Midnight Express is a surprising little theatrical gem.

Ligeti says that she's already received offers to bring Riding the Midnight Express to London, Ireland, Berlin, and Amsterdam. If they do end up in the Dutch Capital, one wonders if the now 66-year-old, former prison escapee Billy Hayes--who still religiously does his yoga--will once again lose himself in that Van Gogh painting.

Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, St. Lukes Theatre, 308 W. 46th Street (Between 8th and 9th Aves). Wed: 2 pm and 8 pm; Fri: 5 pm; Sun: 2 pm. For tickets, call: 212-239-6200 or visit the St. Luke's Theatre Box Office.

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