You know when you’ve overscheduled yourself, everything is overwhelming, and you start to wonder if it’s your fault for not being able to hold things together? I Am Seaweed by Cheryl Ho perfectly encapsulates that feeling, brought to us by the newly formed collective Mm and Something Happens Here (MASHH) as part of Melbourne Fringe 2023. In a nutshell, the show is about trying to grasp stability as an actor in Singapore, when financial security always feels a moment from slipping away.
Cheryl Ho plays Sheryl-with-an-S (from Singapore, which also starts with S), an artist juggling multiple jobs in the pursuit of her passions. She also plays “Seaweed-with-a-c,” an inner-self persona who tries to hold onto Sheryl’s joie de vivre and occasionally spills her innermost insecurities whilst doing so. The two are very effectively visually demarcated: Sheryl seems like a little cartoon adventurer in her zipped jacket and shorts whilst Seaweed wears a “slay every day era” shirt, hidden just underneath the zipper in what seems like a kind of metaphor for the idea of a contained alter ego.
Ho’s writing throughout is tight and witty, and in the lead role she very much holds her own, lighting up the theatre as Sheryl’s seaweed-self in particular. Ho has written for herself a funny, relatable and deeply sympathetic character; as somebody who also lays claim to being oversensitive and an at times chronic overthinker, I did feel my own sense of resonance with Sheryl. Seaweed, of course, crops up throughout the script; notably, Sheryl works on a project dealing with the impending climate crisis, from the point-of-view of seaweed. If the show had a longer run time, I would have liked to see a stronger thread of wrestling with climate issues, given that climate change continues to exists in the real world as an ever-present, background stressor.
I Am Seaweed was staged in St Kilda’s Theatre Works, a wide, vaulted space well-suited to hold this one woman show slash multimedia production. The latent sea breeze from the St Kilda water added to the atmosphere whilst arriving and leaving, too. Direction by Tan Hui Er and lighting and production design by Rachel Lee makes very effective use of the stage. Just a few pieces of white furniture are used, decorated with colourful cellophane reminiscent of coral as a nod to the show’s seaweed motif. Spotlights are utilised to great effect, especially as Ho runs across the stage to present us with a montage of her life through skits and dialogue snippets. This is punctuated by the recurring sound of her morning alarm, a standout in the sound design from Vick Low.
Voiceovers are integrated into the script to charmingly fill in missing dialogue. This was best done in one of my favourite scenes where Sheryl cancels a brunch to work, spirals and ends up in therapy. The resulting therapy appointment is very well-executed; Sheryl’s reflections here are both moving and amusing (I Am Seaweed is representation for people who started going to therapy and then stopped and should probably maybe consider it again, though I’ll say that I lasted more than one session). Occasional projections against the far wall add the final elevation to the multimedia here, with help from multimedia assistant Ryan Choo. I felt that the show walked a careful balance in capturing and containing the feeling of being overwhelmed and overstimulated, without ever resorting to overly loud noises and flashing lights. Quite a fantastic job from the creative minds.
The matinee I attended on Saturday 14 October was followed by a brief Q&A with Ho and director Tan. Here, Ho spoke about struggling to write the ending; at times, she considered both a wholly positive ending of self-embrace and a more depressing option, where Seaweed is expelled altogether. Whilst I wouldn’t spoil (on principle, and I’m holding out for another run) the final scene here truly sticks the landing for me. It’s realistic but still hopeful, thought-provoking but not cloying, and subtly calls back to a touching anecdote about the power of kindness at a young age.
On the same Saturday I saw I Am Seaweed, two of my closest friends were working double shifts to get by. It does feel ironic to be writing this review whilst both feeling overwhelmed myself and wondering if I’m really doing enough to really warrant complaining. This is a piece of theatre that does surely resonate with its audience, carrying a reminder that life is difficult and you’re not alone in feeling that way. I’m glad that I made time to see this gem; I only hope more people have the same opportunity in the future.