The Man Who Would Be Fidel

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"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.

Holding at arm's length a painting of a Cuban woman dressed in a shawl, Roblan explains with obvious pride that he trained as a visual artist, not as an actor. Born in the small western Cuban town of Bejucal to a cigar maker and a seamstress, he studied painting and sculpture at the San Alejandro Art Academy in Havana. While still in school, in 1950, Roblan entered a talent competition at the newly inaugurated Cuban television station Telemundo, seen on Channel 2 in Havana. He conflated a stage name, Roblan, from his two given last names, Rodriguez Blanco.

"I kept in mind that television was a medium to watch, not listen to," he recalls, making drawing motions with his hands as he leans back on a fake leather love seat in the theater's lobby. "So the more movement there is, the better. I presented something I had always enjoyed -- caricatures. I had members of the audience draw any kind of squiggle on a piece of paper, and I'd turn it into a picture of a celebrity or a politician."

Roblan proved popular with the public, and eventually appeared on several episodes of the talent show. He soon added a new element to his routine. "I said, 'Why don't we animate the caricature?' So I started mimicking the personalities I drew."

The artist's imitations quickly earned him a regular spot on another program, Hacia la Fama (Toward Fame), and not long afterward he was working full-time for Telemundo, learning about constructing sets, operating lights, scriptwriting, and other elements of production for the new medium. But most of all he made people laugh. "I won my place through my characterizations," he points out. "Since I could draw, since I could sculpt, I could shape my face to look like the face of any other person."

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Judy Cantor