Most audiences don't seem to object to theater that pushes a political message—as long as it doesn't cross the line into heavy-handedness. The fact that El Muerto Vagabundo has a 12-page study guide certainly makes it seem the play could cross that line. But even though the ensemble-devised play isn't shy about the fact that it's making a point, it's not creatively limited by it either.
This year's Day of the Dead show at Milagro Theatre focuses on returning spirits who have no family to visit, and uses the concept to discuss homelessness in Portland (which is what most of the information in the study guide up on the theater's website is about). El Muerto Vagabundo tells the story of the Kid (Diego Delascio), an orphan in the care of his sister (Mariel Sierra) who insists on building a Day of the Dead altar to honor their parents despite his sister's resistance. When she goes off to work her graveyard shift at a homeless shelter, the Kid ends up following a wandering spirit (Roberto Arce) to a homeless camp under a bridge.
What follows is a collage of backstories as the Kid gets to know everyone in the camp. Every story is told with the help of some kind of cool stage trick: For Pan's (Carrie Anne Huneycutt) story, some of the actors project cut-out shadow puppets onto a sheet held up by two of the other actors in the dark theater. With all the fragmented, unconventional storytelling, the play has the potential to feel overdone, but El Muerto Vagabundo doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. In a few interludes, Arce mimes everything with G-rated Benny Hill-like clownishness.
The closest the play gets to topical are its references to homeless camp sweeps. Its main message is pretty simple and hardly radical: Homeless people deserve to be treated with the same respect and empathy as people who don't have to live on the streets. El Muerto Vagabundo isn't trying to force something down your throat, or at least nothing you wouldn't want to swallow.
SEE IT: El Muerto Vagabundo plays at Milagro Theatre, 525 SE Stark St., milagro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. Through Nov. 6. $20-$27.