The Man Who Would Be Fidel

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

Next comes a Mexican wearing a gigantic sombrero. Then a Spaniard with an exaggerated Castilian accent. Castro tries to involve them in various business schemes. But even after he offers his visitors a two-for-one prostitute special, they decline, citing their fear of legal repercussions from the Helms-Burton bill. (Last September the U.S. House of Representatives approved a version of the bill whereby Cuban Americans could sue foreign companies in U.S. court if those firms bought property that had been confiscated from them by Castro's government. The proposed legislation is expected to be presented in the Senate early this year.)

At the mention of the Helms-Burton bill, U.S. representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen walk stiffly onto the Teatro Trail stage. Both wear dark sunglasses and tough expressions, giving them the look of extras on a rerun of Miami Vice. The audience applauds and rises in a standing ovation, which continues until Diaz-Balart waves his hand for them to sit down. The congressman and congresswoman start arguing with Castro, gradually backing him into a corner of the stage.

"We're going to see freedom for Cuba!" shouts Diaz-Balart.
"No, my people support me," counters Castro. The whole audience boos.
"It's over," pronounces Diaz-Balart.
"Free Elections! Free elections!" chants Ros-Lehtinen.

A member of the audience hands each of the politicians a small Cuban flag, which they obligingly wave. The crowd treats them as superheroes, cheering and whistling. Meanwhile Roblan's Castro stomps about the stage having a temper tantrum. Here the sketch ends, as Roblan and the two politicians leave the stage, giving way to two other cast members in a bit about an effeminate male tamale vendor and a macho fisherman trying to keep from starving in Havana.

Reached by phone in his Washington, D.C., office a few days later, Diaz-Balart seems to find nothing particularly unusual about his brief fling as a thespian in the Little Havana docudrama. "Roblan has been able to capture the essence of Cuba and to capture the political moment in a really marvelous way," explains the congressman. "I thought it would be a nice idea to show up."

Not coincidentally, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen are staunch supporters of the Helms-Burton bill, and the legislation itself is a major theme of the two-hour Con Lincoln y con Ileana Volveremos a la Habana. "We saw [our appearance] as a gesture of solidarity," Diaz-Balart notes matter-of-factly.

But for Jose Antonio Evora, a Cuban scholar and critic who arrived in Miami two years ago to research Cuban exile theater on a Guggenheim fellowship, Roblan's brand of real-life theater is an extension of the tradition of absurd political satire on the island. "In Cuba, popular theater was always linked to politics, simply because politics have so defined life on the island," contends Evora, who decided to stay on in Miami after his grant ended at the end of 1994. Such political comedy revues, which offered a running commentary on current events, pretty much disappeared on the island with the triumph of the revolutionary government. Castro's regime forbade such mockery, and the productions were replaced by plays that extolled the glories of the new government. But on Calle Ocho, far, far away from Cuban censors, exiles can still enjoy the kind of theater that was popular in Cuba before 1959 -- productions packed with sexual innuendoes, homosexual jokes, and mother-in-law humor, mixed with more recent criticism of Castro's government.

"What Roblan and others have done is preserve a kind of Cuban theater that has disappeared inside Cuba," says Evora. "Roblan is the symbol of exile theater, political theater par excellence."

Evora, who formerly worked as a theater and film critic in Havana, contends that the tradition of a theater of the absurd is a natural result of the surrealistic character of Cuban culture. He goes so far as to call it the "theater of the absurdocracia," defining Cuban exile comedy as a genre that takes the typical satiric method of blending real events and drama to a bizarre extreme.

"The actor-audience relationship becomes one of character-to-character," explains the critic. "It's a case where all of the Cubans in the theater start to represent themselves, yelling at Fidel and expressing their political points of view. So to bring the politicians on-stage is just a natural extension of that."

Roblan sees his own work as continuing the Cuban theatrical tradition of political satire. But even more than that, he says it is a way of fulfilling his social responsibility in exile. "I believe in duty, and I believe that as Castro I serve the same function as someone who does it behind a microphone on the radio, or with a typewriter as a journalist. I do it on stage," he states, pausing for a moment. "Well, perhaps it's just a little more polemical."

Out of costume, Armando Roblan looks nothing like Fidel Castro. As the Cuban president, he is sluggish, bearded, bulky, and relentlessly surly. The real Roblan is lanky and balding, his big eyes accentuated by round glasses. Even at the cusp of age 65 he is dizzyingly energetic, exuding a magnanimous, down-home manner and an expansive, almost silly smile. On a weekday morning a few days after the special Sunday matinee performance of Con Lincoln y con Ileana, Volveremos a la Habana featuring Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, Roblan, dressed in tan slacks and a plaid sports shirt, pokes around in a closet in the theater lobby, pulling out some of his most recent oil paintings. Roblan refers to these paintings -- and to his others that hang around the room -- as "typical scenes" of Cuba: naive depictions of noble vistas and tropical peasants drawn from memories of the island he left in 1961. He also paints the sets for his productions himself, and illustrates the theater's photocopied programs with caricatures of the plays' actors and of the store owners who support the publication with their ads. Roblan's Panamanian wife, Gloria Lau, helps him run the theater, which he leases. On any given day members of his cast can also be found staffing the ticket booth or doing repairs.

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