The Man Who Would Be Fidel

For more than fifteen years, master Castro imitator Armando Roblan has been sending up El Tirano

A sense of timelessness pervades the lobby of Teatro Trail, a former movie house located on SW Eighth Street at 37th Avenue, right where the littered sidewalks of Little Havana intersect with the manicured lawns of Coral Gables. Oil paintings of idyllic country landscapes and quaint village scenes of a Cuba that no longer exists hang in the foyer over roomy armchairs left over from the building's previous incarnation. Near the door, an elderly ticket taker cordially greets incoming theatergoers, giving them handprinted programs that feature ads for local businesses offering guayaberas and English lessons, as well as a "space for autographs" blocked out on the back page. At the small glass concession counter, several middle-age couples chat in Spanish as they wait in line to buy popcorn -- the same popcorn that later will fly from their mouths as they hoot at Fidel Castro.

Backstage, an hour before the 9:00 p.m. showtime for this Saturday-night production of Con Lincoln y con Ileana, Volveremos a la Habana (With Lincoln and With Ileana, We'll Go Back to Havana), writer-actor Armando Roblan has already begun to transform himself into the familiar figure of the Cuban leader. The actor's full lips and prominent chin are hidden behind a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, while a slab of putty gives him a long nose with a gnarled bridge.

Roblan sits in a folding chair at a counter neatly set with a row of theatrical cosmetics. A nearby table holds a pile of local Spanish-language newspapers and old newsprint photographs. Roblan examines a photo of Fidel Castro at the Ibero-American Summit held in Spain in 1992, then compares it to his own face in the mirror, frowning to match the expression Castro wears in the picture. Then he points to a more recent photo -- an older, tired Fidel being helped down the steps of a plane in Vietnam.

Holding an old make-up mirror, he picks up an eyebrow pencil and etches in frown lines around his mouth and eyes, then dots on several moles, identical to Castro's. Next the actor glues a thin mustache in place with the aid of spirit gum, then picks up a hair dryer and aims it at his upper lip. Already dressed in Castro's signature olive drabs, Roblan gets up from the table and proceeds to a closet area where a khaki dress uniform, a sultan's turban, a flamenco dress, and other costumes are hanging. He takes down a large, rectangular piece of foam padding that is ripped in several places from so much use. Grabbing a piece of string, he ties the padding around his midsection, buttons his jacket, and adjusts his stuffing, breathing heavily as he moves about the room. Then he covers his own balding pate with a green army cap and slips on a huge pair of dark glasses.

"Now come the muscular expressions," he says, furrowing his brow and drawing in his lips until they almost disappear. Suddenly Roblan's usual hospitable demeanor undergoes a transformation. His words become curt, his movements brusque, and his eyes dart around with an all-seeing gaze. "What happens is the spirit of the person starts to penetrate," he intones, pulling at his beard.

The actor now looks disconcertingly like Castro, a resemblance he will use to comic effect. Although Roblan is a mimic whose talents have garnered him a variety of roles in the theater and on television in Latin America, here he cannot shake his reputation as "the Fidel Castro of Miami." For fifteen years crowds of Cuban exiles have made a ritual of watching Roblan reduce el maximo lider to a bumbling buffoon in an ongoing series of farces that comment on Cuban current affairs from a Miami exile's distinct point of view.

For instance, in 1989, concluding that Fidel's days were numbered after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Roblan's En los 90 Fidel Revienta (In the Nineties, Fidel Will Explode) began a four-year run at Teatro Marti, on SW Eighth Avenue. The rhyming Spanish title became so well-known locally that George Bush even recited it while making a campaign speech in Miami in 1992, a move guaranteed to find favor with the city's Cuban-American populace.

While the Cuban situation didn't exactly turn out as Roblan had predicted, it continued to provide him with fodder for additional productions featuring the follies precipitated by Fidel: 1991's -- Pepe Salsa, Le Lleg cents la Novia en Balsa (Pepe Salsa's Girlfriend Arrived on a Raft) and 1992's La Novia del Balsero Se Le Fue con un Techero (The Rafter's Girlfriend Left Him for a Roofer). In 1993 he comforted weary Miami Cubans with En los 90 Fidel, Si, Revienta (In the Nineties, Yes, Fidel Will Explode). One year later, Roblan lampooned Castro's fledgling capitalist business efforts with No Ha Reventao, pero Esta Negociao (He Hasn't Exploded, but He's Negotiated). And early last year Roblan lent his support to the effort to naturalize Cuban exiles when he performed Mi Hermano, Hay Que Hacerse Ciudadano (Brother, You've Got to Become a Citizen).

Modeled on the farcical genre teatro bufo that was performed widely in Havana in the Twenties and Thirties, Roblan's archetypal works of Miami exile theater offer a surreal mix of fact and fiction built on burlesque humor, political satire, nostalgia, and mass frustration. For older exile audiences who have spent 37 years mourning pre-Castro Cuba, his portrayal of the revolutionary leader as a stumblebum is not only the ultimate sight gag, but also a rite of collective catharsis.

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