The Man Who Would Be Fidel

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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.

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.

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Judy Cantor