Arts theater review

Hackers on stage

Immortalizing the works of the night

Hack, Punt, Tool

Directed by Rachel A. Bowens-Rubin ’11 and Krista Sergi

MIT Musical Theater Guild

Feb. 3,4 & 9–11, 2012 at
8 p.m. and Feb. 5, 2012 at
2 p.m.

La Sala De Puerto Rico

Anyone who has been on an MIT campus tour has seen the pictures of great hacks of the past. Study here for a year, and you’re sure to see a hack with your own eyes. Yet despite the knowledge that hackers are fellow students, the people that crawl between the walls and pull high-tech pranks remain a mystery to most. In Hack, Punt, Tool, hackers take center stage in a story steeped in MIT mythology. This new musical is written, scored, and orchestrated by MIT students. For those who have ever wondered who was behind the abduction of the Caltech cannon or the many creative alterations to the dome, this is the show for you.

The musical follows the story of freshman Billy Rogers (Trevor Mulchay ’15), who wants nothing more than to be a “hardk0re” hacker. He and his frosh classmates — the enthusiastic Ryan Putz (Jonathan J. Surick ’14) and premed Connor Burton (Anna Y. Ho ’14) — join veteran hackers Corot and Tess in a plan to hack the Great Dome. However, their plans are opposed by Campus Police Sergeant Bruce E. Sprinkles (Luis M. Orrego ’13) and his squad, who vow to stop any midnight shenanigans. Add with the vengeful upperclassman Kepler, and the monstrous “Novembat’s” threats towards Billy and Tess’s budding relationship, Story Jack’s omniscient (and biased) narration, and a slew of quirky minor characters, and you’ve got a recipe for a Musical Theater Guild success.

This production features new talent in starring roles, with freshman Miles C. Kelsey pulling off the disillusioned Kepler. Daniel J. Gonzalez ’14 both looks and acts the part of the hacker leader Corot, and Trevor J. Mulchay ’15 and Allison M. Schneider ’13 bring to life the awkward yet adorable tension between Bill and Tess. Although there are no five-star voices, the musical finds its strength in its background characters. Chris L. Follett G’s CP-mocking antics and snazzy purple costume shines as Story Jack, and Pauline P. Varley’s ’15 and Kate A. Roe’s ’14 roles as lesbian couple Electra and Mags steal the show with their convincing passion in “Distraction Tango.” Other notable background characters include the caffeine-addicted Faraday (Lian Guertin ’13), the innocent and oblivious CP Barry Claw (Rob B. Morrison ’96), and cookie-toting team mom Hunter (Helen O’Keefe ’09).

As you can probably guess by the character names, this show revels in camp. One of the more bizarre aspects of the play was the presence of the Novembat, a “nightmare-horror-maw creature” consisting of a bug-head, many tentacles, claws, and at least one hoof. The musical pokes fun at the obligatory love song with the number “Platonic Friends Again,” in which Tess and Billy declare their “platonic” friendship while being threatened by the Novembat. Another ridiculous scene occurs when the hackers sneak past a newly-bolstered security system, featuring Hollywood computer hacking and lasers. Yet the unbelievableness of it all does not diminish the sincerity of Kepler and Billy’s duet in “There’s More to Life Than Tooling.”

So how does this show match up to MTG’s others? Although I didn’t find the introductory songs to be incredibly catchy, Hack, Punt, Tool hits its stride with the light percussion in “Building,” a perfect background for the sounds of construction. The modular set facilitated the action by providing cubbyholes for hackers to crawl into and serving as the backdrop for dorm rooms, a police station, and Killian Court all at once, although its bulkiness made scene changes long and awkward. As for costuming, I counted at least four and probably more trench coats, supplemented with ridiculously cool black outfits with vivid color edging, adding to the mystique of hackers.

In-jokes abound, but they should be mostly recognizable to MIT students. The murals in the dorm scenes are musical theater jokes or references to MIT murals, and clever one-liners on campus art and the dining plan are sprinkled throughout the show. If you’re familiar with hacker lore, you’ll recognize much of the beginning of “The World of the Hacker.”

“I think the biggest Easter eggs are if you listen to Story Jack carefully,” said Bowens-Rubin, who is also one of the musical’s writers.

Not only is this musical about MIT students — it was written by them as well. The project had its inception at a cast party for MTG’s IAP 2011 show of Jekyll and Hyde, spurred by Julie Henion ’11’s longstanding desire to write a musical.

“I think somewhere around fall 2009 I became really into musical theater,” Henion said, “I had thrown around, half seriously, half not, just the idea of writing a piece of theater in some way. I tried to do that on my own but it was just too much of a challenge.”

Henion joined forces with Zachary B. Barryte ’13, Bowens-Rubin, and Danbee “TaunTaun” Kim ’09. The three wrote the musical together over the course of one year using a rather unusually-named process.

“It’s called vomit writing,” explained Bowens-Rubin. “Basically you just, no filters, write everything you can think of and just dump a bunch of material onto the page. … We would pick out what we thought was the best from the vomit, which is why literally the book is just the three of our brains mushed all together.”

As Stephen Sondheim said, musical comedies aren’t written — they are rewritten, and Hack, Punt, Tool was no different.

“Myself and the lyricist would talk together and try to settle on something that I was comfortable with musically and he was comfortable with lyrically,” Henion said, “then we would present it to the book writers and sometimes to other people … and then we would discuss and sometimes argue and eventually, after several drafts of that, we would settle on something everyone liked and we felt comfortable presenting to an audience. And sometimes when we got it in front of an audience, we even discovered things that none of us had thought about … so we would even change things after that.”

One of the main mysteries in the play is the identity of the hack, which consists of a Squid Net, a Science Box, and a Dragon Wing but is never fully revealed.

“It was very important to us to represent hacking in a way that really celebrated the hacking community,” Henion explained, “one of the things we thought would be good was to not display a hack. Either an existing hack or a hack that we made up because we didn’t want to say ‘oh, this hack is the epitome of awesome hacks.’ … All the viewers can use their imagination to as to what it might be that they would have been putting on the dome.”

Hack, Punt, Tool captures the myths and realities of life at MIT and immortalizes them on stage. Whether you’re a grad student or an undergrad, East Campus or West Campus, Course 18 or Course 7, you’re sure to agree that “there’s more to MIT than earning your degree.”

For those who want a copy of the show after it has finished running, the writers plan on releasing a cast recording on the Bandcamp website on a donation basis. T-shirts and DVDs will be sold at all performances. All proceeds will go towards funding MTG.