LENOX -- All hell breaks loose roughly midway through the second half of Shakespeare & Company's otherwise fitful production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." For as long as the madly merry mix-up among the lovers -- Lysander (a consistently inspired David Joseph), Hermia (Kelly Galvin), Helena (Cloteal L. Horne) and Demetrius (Colby Lewis) -- explodes across the Tina Packer Playhouse stage and through the audience, director Tony Simote's production takes the full measure of young love and libido that have been hinted at through all that has come before. The breakneck pace and gymnastic precision with which these four collide, bend, twist, leap, toss, roll and rumble seizes the moment and takes full advantage of the energy and spirit of the Jazz Age New Orleans setting in which Simotes has placed his production.

At virtually no other point in this just-under-three-hour production, including intermission, does the 1930s New Orleans atmospehere seem anything more than an arbitrarily imposed notion that provides neither fresh insight nor magical engagement.

It also doesn't help that the most surface manifestation of the South, an accent, a lilt, is inconsistently applied -- a fleeting trace in the beginning from Annette Miller's Egeus, and in Jonathan Epstein's thickly Cajun-inflected Peter Quince, whom Epstein plays as an artistic poseur, albeit a harmless one. For everyone else, good old-fashioned unaccented stage diction is enough.

n

Ultimately, it all comes down to the performances which cover a wide range from earnest and sincere to acceptable to accomplished and satisfying (Rocco Sisto's beautifully nuanced Oberon, for example; Joseph's Lysander; for another; and Malcolm Ingram's warmly endearing, delicately fey Flute).

Michael F. Toomey's abrasive Puck catches an earthbound sensibility in this production that is at odds with all the captivating magic there is to be done in this fanciful, yet, at the same time knowing, piece about the foibles of love and relationships and the gaining of wisdom in a setting in which youth can exhibit the wisdom and maturity of age and age can exhibit the impetuous follies of youth.

n

Take away the gratuitous, intrusive New Orleans trappings and you have an unexceptional "Midsummer Night's Dream" that moves with more effort than it should. Until, that is, that spectacular second half showstopping rumble in the Athens woods. In those 10 minutes or so, this "Midsummer" fully comes into its own and, in the process, serves notice of just how much opportunity has been missed in the other 21/2 hours. Theater Review

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tony Simotes; set designer, Travis George; costume designer, Deborah A. Brothers; lighting designer, Matthew E. Adelson; composer / sound designer / music director, Alexander Sovronsky; movement director, Barbara Allen; fight choreographer, Tony Simotes. In rotating repertory through Aug. 30. Selected afternoons and evenings. Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox. Tickets: $15-$80. (413) 637-3353; shakespeare.org. 2 hours 50 minutes

Bottom Johnny Lee Davenport

Quince Jonathan Epstein

Hermia Kelly Galvin

Helena Cloteal L. Horne

Starveling Malcolm Ingram

Hippolyta / Titania Merritt Janson

Lysander David Joseph

Demetrius Colby Lewis

Snout Robert Lohbauer

Peaseblossom Briana Maia

Egeus / Snug Annette Miller

Mustardseed Atalanta Siegel

Theseus / Oberon Rocco Sisto

Flute Alexander Sovronsky

Puck Michael F. Toomey