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Theater Review: “Riding the Midnight Express” at Downstairs Cabaret 

In the opening minute of Billy Hayes’ performance of “Riding the Midnight Express,” he talks about his crime of smuggling hashish out of Turkey in an almost joking manner, saying he knew it was an idiotic move. It seemed like a good idea at the time, he said. The aftermath of that decision, five years in the Turkish prison system, was no joke —Hayes was supposed to serve 25 years, but only served five because he escaped.

Hayes’ story was preserved in his memoir “Midnight Express,” which was followed up by an Academy Award-winning film of the same name in 1978 — although, as Hayes made quite clear on stage, there are stark differences in what happened in life and in the movie.

Even if there were those in attendance that both read the book and watched the movie, Hayes’ enthralling retelling of his tale made it seem like they were hearing it for the first time. He was able to draw hearty laughs from the crowd while talking about the dark and dire circumstances he found himself in: getting pulled right before he was about to board the plane, finding himself on the receiving end of a frisking and his drugs being found, and then being sent to prison.

Hayes also drew fear, anxiety, and a good number of “holy shits” and “Jesus Christs” from the small crowd. This was not just the act of a man telling his story; he was reliving it, and everyone in the room got to relive it along with him. The passion was especially felt when Hayes spoke of the unexpected death of his best friend, who was assisting in hatching Hayes’ escape plan, or when there were moments of euphoria in prison made possible by acid he smuggled in by means of letters from friends. Or when he spoke of being at his lowest in prison, seriously considering suicide as a way out. But it was especially felt when Hayes talked about the multiple moments where, if he was seen or heard during his escape, he would have been killed.

If watching dramatic escapes and prison breaks in the movies is a thrill ride for you, then getting to hear a real account told by the person who managed to live through it should be a blast off in a rocket. Those previously mentioned “holy shits” and “Jesus Christs” occurred mostly during the dramatic retelling of Hayes’ escape from the island prison he was held in. His descriptions were vivid throughout the show, but something about his escape just made me feel like I was watching it happen. With the flair he told the tale with, it was especially bone-chilling.

The lighting throughout the show was well-done. At darker times in the story, the lights would go dim, with the only illumination being on Hayes, and it add quite a lot to the story’s atmosphere.

A question and answer session followed the performance, and it got interesting when an audience member asked Hayes how he feels about drug-related punishments today, domestically and internationally. Hayes wasted no time in answering. He believes getting arrested for having a joint on you and possibly going to jail over the matter is a ridiculous and outdated discipline. He also let his opinions on Richard Nixon and the war on drugs fly unfiltered, stating it was “one of the biggest mistakes by our government in the last 50 years.” It was the Turkish government trying to cooperate with the “war” that extended Hayes’ prison term to a life sentence, eventually being brought down to 25 years — but his vendetta didn’t seem to be one that arose out of bitterness for what he went through, it was just a view he was adamant in taking and standing by.

“Riding the Midnight Express” continues through Sunday, February 8, at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, 20 Windsor Street. 7 p.m. on Thursdays; and 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, and 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 8. $26-$29. Downstairscabaret.org.

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