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He's found his calling: comedy

Playing Jesus, Philbin Bowman questions religion and politics

CAMBRIDGE -- The title of Abie Philbin Bowman's act is brilliant in its simplicity: "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years." And the young Irish comedian is quick to acknowledge that the title probably had a lot to do with his unexpected success at last summer's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"There are 1,800 shows there," he says. "If you can't sell your idea in 10 seconds, you might as well not go."

But the title sold it, and his one-man show became a surprise hit in Edinburgh, then went on to sold-out success in London's West End. Now "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" has arrived at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater in Somerville. Through Aug. 12, Philbin Bowman spins his tale of the Son of God who returns to Earth as a stand-up comic and runs into a spot of trouble at US Immigration -- he's a bearded Palestinian, after all, who's willing to die as a religious martyr.

Ironically enough, the show's original opening here had to be delayed by a week, when Philbin Bowman had a bit of immigration trouble himself. But he insists the truth is less dramatic than that sounds.

"I would love to tell you that it was this huge conspiracy in the State Department, and Bush and Cheney got involved, and then the Supreme Court intervened and overruled them," Philbin Bowman says over lunch in Cambridge. "But no, it was just bureaucracy -- not ticking all the right boxes on all the right forms, and we didn't plan enough time to get it all done."

In fact, he says, the officer he met at US Immigration was amused, not appalled, when he asked what the show was about and Philbin Bowman told him. "He said, 'He should have come to me -- he would've gone straight through!' "

In the show, however, Jesus has a rougher time of it. After walking across the Atlantic to spread Dad's message that "humor is a gift from God," he ends up in Guantanamo, being interrogated as a suspected terrorist. And it's the prison, of course, that's the true subject of the show.

"The real target is Guantanamo, something that is deeply un-Christian," Philbin Bowman says. Many Christians have seen the show, he says, and almost no one has objected to it as blasphemy.

"I think telling jokes is not quite as blasphemous as torture, for example," he says. "If you really believe in Jesus, how can you live with this?"

But he's eager to convey that message through laughter, not lectures. In a regular column for the Dubliner magazine, Philbin Bowman can argue seriously and passionately against US policies of interrogation at Guantanamo. But "in the show, I have tried very, very hard to make sure there's a joke every minute, at least," he says. "If it were didactic, nobody would come to see it. And anybody who did would probably agree. So what's the point?"

Philbin Bowman says he's not religious himself, mainly because his first experience of religion was hearing that it made Irish Protestants and Catholics want to kill each other. But he says he's "become a lot more pro-Christian" from studying Jesus's teachings; he jokes about starting a group called Atheists for Jesus. And he's most interested, he says, in engaging American Christians in thinking about what he sees as the profound hypocrisy of fighting terrorism with torture.

"So much of what Jesus says is applicable to this situation," Philbin Bowman says. " 'Turn the other cheek' -- it's not about being a wimp. . . . That to me is about understanding that if you fight back with violence, you just create a cycle of violence. Turn the other cheek -- moon someone! Mock them, humiliate them, make them look stupid."

His belief in the power of ridicule, he says, comes in part from growing up in close proximity to the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland.

"The IRA is mainly idjits," he declares, with the irresistibly blunt Irish pronunciation of that term. "You're not dealing with evil geniuses." By the same token, he says of Middle Eastern terrorists, "for the most part they're just dumb kids, angry young guys. And you should say, 'You're complete idiots.'

"Look at Timothy McVeigh," he goes on. "They treated him like a criminal, gave him a fair trial, and convicted him, and nobody thinks of him as a martyr. If instead they'd arrested all his schoolmates and interrogated them, it would have made the people of Oklahoma rise up in protest. And that's their own government -- now imagine a foreign power doing the same thing."

Philbin Bowman, who turns 26 Saturday, says he owes much of his interest in politics and comedy to his father, who's well known in Ireland as a political journalist, and to his late brother, who hooked him on Monty Python and on "Spitting Image," a British show that used latex puppets to satirize political figures.

"I think I got into politics because I wanted to get the jokes on 'Spitting Image,' " he says. "So I'm really delighted I've got something that can straddle both worlds, politics and comedy."

Eventually he plans to return to Dublin's Trinity University, where he'll pursue a master's degree in international relations, focusing on conflict resolution.

But who knows? The master's degree may have to wait, if US audiences take to "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" as eagerly as those in the UK. Philbin Bowman would like nothing better than to take it on tour -- in Texas, say.

And after that? Well, he says with a wink, he does have another idea for a show, one that draws on his previous study of Irish and Indian nationalists and their struggles against the British Empire.

"It's called 'Dancing at the Crossroads,' " he says, "and it's a Bollywood-style musical biopic of Eamon de Valera."

Ridiculous? Sure. But so is Jesus in an orange jumpsuit.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

Abie Philbin Bowman performs "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" at Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theater, Somerville, Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30

p.m. through Aug. 12. Tickets: $20. 866-811-4111, jtoffbroadway.com

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