The Man Who Would Be Fidel

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

Roblan writes the scripts -- leaving room for improvisation -- and plays two or three other roles in each production, as do the other members of his six-member troupe. But the actor's Fidel is undeniably the main attraction. "The audience really enjoys the way I ridicule Fidel," brags Roblan. "That's how I've won my public."

The actor, who turns 65 next month, insists that he does not want to be known only as the man who plays Castro, but he takes obvious pride in the role. He first played it not in Little Havana but on Cuban television in 1959, when he dressed up as Castro for an audience that included the then-new Cuban president himself. Nearly four decades later, he maintains his claim as the authentic Fidel imitator. "There have been other attempts to copy what I do and do it somewhere else," he says dismissively. "But no one can do it better because everything has its place. The source gives me credit."

The audience that typically pays sixteen dollars a pop to see Roblan perform Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Teatro Trail (tickets cost thirteen dollars for senior citizens) includes groups of tourists from Latin America, where Roblan is a well-known comic thanks to his guest appearances on the syndicated Univisi centsn variety show Sabado Gigante and other television programs. Some are families with young children, for whom Roblan is the Mister Rogers-like host of the long-running children's show Los Amigitos de Roblan (Roblan's Little Friends), that was broadcast on Panamanian television.

But the majority of Roblan's public is made up of older Cubans who arrive at the theater looking as worn as the dilapidated buildings that line the streets of present-day Havana: groups of women with tight bouffants in varying shades of blue and gray, and dapper gentlemen dressed in ancient suit coats and doused with sweet-smelling hair tonic. These are the people Roblan refers to as "the Medicare crowd," the ones who sometimes doze off in their seats as they wait for the show to begin.

But on a Sunday afternoon in December the theater buzzes with an excitement worthy of a Hollywood premiere. Cars jam the lot behind the building, with others parked in the drive-up teller lanes of the bank across the street. The lobby has been spruced up in time for this special matinee performance of Con Lincoln y con Ileana, Volveremos a la Habana. Pine boughs and gold balls, both tied with red ribbon, hang on the walls. Fake-snow holiday greetings in Spanish have been sprayed on several mirrors. Christmas stockings have been tacked over a faux fireplace. And a life-size cardboard cutout of U.S.Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, attired in a crisp yellow blazer and skirt, has been propped up near the refreshment stand.

Inside the auditorium, the claps and whistles of an impatient audience of about 450 people drown out selections from Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra that play over and over on the house sound system.

Finally a voice speaking Spanish booms from backstage: "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. You are going to have a great time. Laugh, because laughter is health. Laughter is the disinfectant of the soul."

With that, the stage's silver lame curtains part to reveal a disheveled office. A painted backdrop depicts bookshelves lined with Marxist tracts, while a portrait of a goofy-looking young Fidel Castro hangs on one of the walls. After a minute, Castro himself shuffles into the room, his ankles twisted as though his black combat boots are on the wrong feet.

"Sssss," the crowd hisses.
"Boooo!" some people yell, cupping their hands around their mouths.
"Murderer!" someone shouts from the back. Not a head in the audience turns in reaction to the outburst.

"I'm so tired," sighs Castro, rubbing his lower back. "Since the Russians stopped sending me those vitamins, I just can't go on."

The catcalls suddenly dissolve into hysterical laughter. Roblan's Castro waits a beat before picking up a red phone on the set's desk. "Hello, Robaina," he says, referring to Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina. "See if you can get me some cat's claw or some shark testicle." Laughter.

"I don't know why, but my sister Juanita doesn't send it to me from Miami any more." More laughter.

Castro strokes his paunch and pulls at his beard. "Time for my exercises." He starts jumping around, flailing his arms as he dances to the strains of last summer's Spanish novelty hit "La Macarena."

"Hey, Fidel Castro," he chants, making up his own words to the song as he lunges forward precariously and throws his arms over his head. "Yeah!"

A man in the first row is laughing so hard he's choking. Castro stares down at him from the stage, wrinkling his forehead above his oversize glasses. The man slumps into his seat, giggling madly.

On-stage, a parade of businessmen visit Castro's office to discuss their investments in Cuba. First comes an Argentine bearing a bottle of "Vino Fidel" that bears a picture of Castro on its label.

"This is great!" exclaims Castro. "I'm sure Gabriel Garcia Marquez will want to be the first to try it. Just make sure it's red wine." But Castro decides to take the first sip himself, and after he does he doubles over, clutching his stomach in pain. The bottle contains poison, and the Argentine turns out to be a spy for Jorge Mas Canosa's Cuban National Foundation. Castro's secretary, a young female soldier played by Ileana Hurtado, can't locate any medicine to help him because the pharmacies don't have any. And she can't bring him a glass of water because he ordered the water turned off. And she can't go for a doctor because her bicycle has been stolen. Finally a veterinarian arrives and gives Castro a "horse" pill. When he realizes what it is, he has the vet hauled off to prison. The audience howls.

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